From California-West To California-East
“The Lord preserves the simple;
when I was brought low, he saved me.
Return, O my soul, to your rest,
For the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.”
Back in 2016, my wife Janis and I did our best Abraham and Sarah imitation. We sold our house, I stepped down from a wonderful church in Connecticut that I had pastored for 20 years, and we moved to Los Angeles knowing but two people (including our daughter), with no jobs and no forwarding address.
I’ve taught walking by faith my whole life; God just had the audacity to call me out on it. I knew but two things when we moved: my first assignment was to take a good, long sabbatical away from ministry to focus on bringing to birth a number of writing projects that had long been burning in my heart. And secondly, that at the time of his choosing, the Lord would open up brand new doors of ministry for me.
In other words, he would take care of us. He wouldn’t let our “sandals wear out” (if you know that verse). He wouldn’t let us perish in the wilderness.
Friends thought we were nuts. There were a few folks we were close to that went suddenly and strangely into “radio-silence” mode (and still are). You’re not supposed to do this sort of thing in your fifties. You’re not supposed to take money you’ve saved up for retirement and toss it to the wind, in one of the most expensive cities in the world.
But God had confirmed it to my heart over and over again in the two years leading up to the move that this was his call to us. This was as far from impulsive a decision as could be. It was just the scariest decision we had ever made. Would God catch us? (And isn’t that what the Bible says about God’s Word to us – that it’s a “lamp unto our feet”? He doesn’t illuminate the entire path, showing us the end from the beginning, then based on that certainty, we step forward. Nope. He shows us the next step or two only, then says, “Trust me. Seek me. I’ll lead you. I’ll provide.”)
And as we look in Scripture, this sort of thing is actually as far from unusual as could be. In fact, it’s a template of what God longs to do with us. The wilderness is a symbol of where God takes us to die, so that he can bring new life out of us.
He calls Abraham and Sarah forth to the wilderness with only a promise. He yanks Moses out of a safe retirement with a voice coming from a bush. He summons Gideon to exercise great courage, though Gideon feels like a wimp. He promises David a kingdom, then hides him away as a fugitive in the desert for more than a decade. He prompts Nehemiah to abandon the safety and comfort of palace-life, because God could see a city-builder and governor inside of Nehemiah, when Nehemiah could only see a cupbearer. Jesus is filled with the Spirit, but that wasn’t good enough. The Spirit leads him into the wilderness, and he emerges from it in the power of the Spirit. Jesus called each of the Twelve away from the Known into the Unknown. God renamed and remolded Paul, burying Paul in obscurity for more than 15 years before unleashing this juggernaut of faith into the Roman world.
I thought I had been living that life, but it was an illusion. I knew that since childhood there was a writer inside of me. Goodness, I had already written a 400-page novel and a mini-series script (my sequel to Ben-Hur) back in 2000. Without even knowing what I was doing, I found an agent for both projects, and was personally corresponding with Charlton Take-Your-Stinkin’-Paws-Off-Me Heston himself. With just a toggle here or there, it would have been made into a movie. But then Mr. Heston got sick, stupid “Gladiator” came out, and the window shut.
But rather than say, “Yunno, that was close! Let’s keep trying!” I pouted and tried to forget about writing. A decade went by, meanwhile all these stories and ideas started pounding on the door of my heart, demanding to come out. If I had tried to silence that passion, and pretend it wasn’t there, I couldn’t have lived with myself.
But I was dying as a pastor as well. Here I was living a comfortable suburban life, in my comfortable suburban church, paying off my comfortable suburban house. Oh, I was doing good work. It just wasn’t the best work I was capable of. I was becoming like one of my favorite hedges in my backyard, which flowered less and less each spring. It would never be fruitful again, unless it was pruned down to the bare stump.
And that’s what needed to happen to me. I was on the fast-track to being that guy who is filled with anguish on his deathbed as he looks back at his life and sees all the time he wasted.
So forty months ago, in July 2016, Janis and I, with our two cats, set out across the country for Los Angeles, a wilderness region if ever there was one.
Setbacks – There’s Always A Red Sea
Looking back at the Scriptural pattern of what happens when God brings his kids into the wilderness-experience, there are some clear lessons to be seen.
Don’t think for a moment that just because you’ve taken the plunge and dived off the Cliff of Faith in front of all the world, that God immediately rewards your obedience with angels singing and a clearly marked, easily-traversed yellow-brick road.
I’ve actually taught it several times over the years. To inherit your Promised Land, there’s always a Red Sea.
The Hebrews are led out of Egypt with singing and glory, and at once plow straight into an impassable body of water with the Egyptian army bearing down fast. God gets them through the Red Sea, there’s more singing and glory, and at once they find themselves dying of thirst and hunger.
Two weeks after we were settled into our new home, my wife Janis went to get up, and couldn’t get up. The stress and labor of the move had weakened her back, and suddenly the discs and muscles said, “That’s all folks.” Here the plan was that she would find work right away and I would hit the ground writing. Suddenly she couldn’t even sit down without being in agony. Which meant no driving, which meant no work, which meant money only going out, none coming in.
I’ve always had a strong emotional core which handles stress well, but during that first month, I experienced something that I never had before in my life – panic attacks. It’s been my habit for years now to begin every day having coffee with Jesus, meditating on Scripture then sealing the deal with a prayer walk. But in those early prayer walks, I was desperate. And God was largely silent. I couldn’t hear his voice or sense his leading for the fear building in my heart.
It was in those first weeks, that I discovered the wilderness psalms of the Bible. I’ve read the psalms my entire life, but now for the first time ever, I finally understood them.
Twice in his life, God broke David utterly down to nothing and drove him to the wilderness – first, when he fled from King Saul who wanted to kill him, and much later when he fled from his son Absalom who also wanted him dead. It was in these experiences that David sought God all the harder, and wrote some of his most poignant psalms.
“As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God.” ~ Psalm 42:1-2
“O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” ~ Psalm 63:1
“In you, O Lord, do I take refuge; let me never be put to shame! In your righteousness deliver me and rescue me; incline your ear to me, and save me! Be to me a rock of refuge to which I may continually come.” ~ Psalm 71:1-3
I found myself memorizing these and other psalms in their entirety, and these became the bulk of my praying during this dark season. Panic would well up like a massive wave, I’d pray aloud a psalm or two, thinking hard about the words, and the fear would dissipate. Then wash, rinse and repeat, because the fear welled up daily, sometimes hourly.
But in those psalms, I began to experience God’s presence again, and more importantly to hear his voice. I said to God, “Well, I guess I need to get out there and find a job,” and I began to throw out resumes to a few churches, and to a nearby Christian college. But God spoke to my heart, “No my son. You came to write, so start writing.” And then as though to confirm it, each resume I sent out got flung back at me twice as hard. (Which was a frightening revelation – good luck as a 50-something pastor trying to find a job.)
So I began writing while Janis healed up.
Thankfully, another pattern we see in Scripture when God brings his child into the wilderness is that he provides abundant signs of his presence, at least when you calm down your heart enough to see it.
Two months into the journey, I was made aware of a screenplay contest for Christian writers which came with a $1000 first prize. The challenge was to write a short 12-page script in a week, based on a given scriptural theme. So I jumped in and gave it a shot.
It was a script that set us on this road in the first place. Back in 2015, my church gave me a month off to write, and I used the time to crank out a movie script, then sent it off to one of the largest screenplay competitions in the world, just for fun. It was that summer that I knew-that-I-knew that God was calling us to take the wild-and-crazy leap of faith and move to LA.
But I couldn’t pull the trigger, so I made like Gideon and said to God, “Lord, if this is you, then I want my script to be a finalist. Then I’ll know this is you.” (There were more than 7,000 entrants in this competition so I knew it wasn’t going to happen.) A couple months passed, and then on December 1, 2015, I found in my inbox an email from the Final Draft Big Break competition: “Congratulations Mr. Clifton. Your script Deep Freeze has been selected as a top ten finalist.” (I’ve never said the word “Crap” to the Lord in prayer before, but I did then.)
So wouldn’t you know it, in early November 2016, came an email from Project 168 informing me that my short script Turbo Jam Boosters had won the $1,000 first prize. This time I came up with a different word to offer God in prayer, because at precisely the time when it was needed, when I couldn’t have sunk any lower, God poured his Attaboy into my heart. A week or two later, he then healed Janis, and at once she plunged into Hollywood and began to work as a background actor. Money and hope began to trickle back in.
Down To Work
I knew from prior sabbaticals I had taken that I would have no problem setting up a writing schedule and keeping to it. Each day after Jesus and I had our coffee, I was in the office, at my computer, digging in. (I think it was Stephen King who said, “I write whenever I’m inspired. And I make sure I’m inspired at 9:00am every morning.”)
After I built from scratch a writing website to begin blogging some periodic devotionals (blclifton.com), I got down to writing my first book, and in November and December of 2016 I rewrote the first draft of a novel “A Sparrow Could Fall” and then in January I wrote a feature-length screenplay built off the story.
In February I got down to work on a project that had hung over my head for more than a decade. Ten years earlier in my church, I had begun preaching what became an annual series on sexual wholeness. Purity issues have plagued the church for years now. Yet the more our culture plunges into sexual chaos, the more hush-hush most churches seem to get about, as though sex is that which shall not be named. I vowed to change this.
We advertised that first purity series by calling it “A Month Of Sex At Grace Baptist” and that series stretched from one month into three, and darn near brought revival to our church.
Ever since then, I’ve been encouraged to take all that teaching and write it down in a book. At long last I was able to do that, and by Easter of 2017, “Train Yourself To Be Godly: A 40-Day Journey Toward Sexual Wholeness” moved from my brain onto the computer.
I put the book on my website, then wrote to colleagues and asked for their feedback, then rewrote the book (Writing is Rewriting as somebody once said). That summer, Baker Bookhouse came within a whisker of publishing it. But then they noticed that I lacked a “platform” and had no social media “following”, so they politely told me to exit the bus. Back in the day, publishers had as part of their mission helping new voices get discovered. But not these days. Baker told me that unless I could guarantee them 20,000 sales in the first year, they weren’t interested.
It was then I realized that it wouldn’t be enough just to write the book. I would need to build a second website in support of the book. Oh the humanity!
But then the more I prayed about it, the more I realized it shouldn’t just be a website, that there should in fact be a dedicated side-ministry raised up in support of it. Which then could be a vehicle for recruiting supporters for the work.
(Do you see why God’s Word to us is just a “lamp unto our feet”. If God had told me on the front-end that he would have me not only writing and blogging, but creating websites, making video podcasts, starting a ministry, and setting up a social media presence, I would have stopped before I started with a “It’s too much, Lord. I can’t do it!”)
So trainyourselfministry.com was born, and in the fall of 2017, I opened a support-portal through Patreon.com, which as it turned out became an invaluable and necessary resource for keeping us moving forward.
Back To Work
I gave myself a year not to work, but being rather fond of a paycheck, as our year anniversary in LA came near, I joined my wife in the world of background acting. (And get this: my very first gig as a background actor was playing the role of a “Baptist worshiper in a Baptist church” for the pilot of Young Sheldon. I hope you see the irony in that! It was a little wink-and-a-nod from God that he had our backs.)
But background acting became more than a job. It quickly became part of my overall education for being a writer in Hollywood. For in the process of being on a film set, I learned all the different components that go into what we see on the screen. I met so many people from so many places with so many dreams among the BG community. I found myself loving this work, and loving being with these people.
And wouldn’t you know, background acting also became for me a return to ministry, as nearly each day, I found myself being a pastor again. In the last two years, I’ve had hundreds of deep, spiritual conversations with others, and have been encouraged to meet many followers of Christ in this culture-shaping industry. (I can’t encourage you enough if you are a Christian to imbed “Hollywood” into your list of things you regularly pray for.)
When Janis and I leave LA in a couple weeks (ooo…foreshadowing…good writers do it) we will carry with us the fondest memories from this line of work. Janis is especially good at getting on TV, but the highlight of our time here will always be being on the set for six-days in the spring of 2018 of Captain Marvel. Both of us made the final cut (you’ll see me in the train scene having an intergalactic staredown with Brie Larson.)
A Short Script Becomes a TV Series
But there were miles to go yet before I slept with the writing. Back when I was still wrestling with whether or not to take the plunge, whenever we would visit our daughter Hannah (who had moved out to Hollywood a few years earlier), I would set up meetings with Christians working in the industry. And I always asked them the same question: “Do I really have to be in Hollywood?” And they always gave me the same answer: “Get your butt out here.”
There’s a great mystery to how an idea eventually makes the journey to the screen, and no one really has ever been able to boil it down to a formula, but one maxim has always held true in Hollywood: It’s not what you know but who you know.
Our very first week here, we were having breakfast with Hannah, and out the window I could overhear the conversation of two people walking by: they were talking about their two screenplays. And routinely, you encounter this. The town just pulses with creative energy and aspiration. So once I had some scripts to market, I threw myself in.
I took classes, attended seminars, participated in a major “pitchfest” where you and hundreds of others dreamers go and pitch your projects to a collection of movers and shakers in Hollywood. The pitchfest connected me to a veteran agent who took a liking to A Sparrow Could Fall. Then that script I wrote in a month – an adventure story called Deep Freeze – caught the attention of another producer who liked it enough to “give me notes” (always a good sign, because it means they’re interested) and asked for a “rewrite”. I continued to send out my work to other major competitions, and every project I created made the quarterfinal rounds or higher.
Meanwhile that shortscript with which I had won the contest began to gestate in me. I had long had the idea for a movie or TV series built off of “It’s A Wonderful Life” believing that that classic movie had left a lot of story material on the table. Imagine a mighty angel with the power Clarence had – to tinker with a human’s perception of reality and play with their imagination for the purpose of helping them see their lives in new ways. Only this angel wouldn’t be simple like Clarence, but would be one of the mightiest of angels, and imagine then if that angel came to earth incognito to work his magic on people.
With a few tweaks, then adding some bells and whistles, that shortscript became the pilot for Tinkerville, a story about one of heaven’s greatest angels coming to earth as a simple school maintenance man with the mission of protecting a junior high boy who would save the world as a adult.
But I couldn’t stop writing episodes, and over the course of twelve months in 2018, I wrote half of a ten-episode season, and capped it off by creating a full movie version of the story. Both the pilot and the movie of Tinkerville were finalists in two of the top-five script contests. (And FYI: all the scripts I wrote during this sabbatical can be read and reviewed on my writing website, blclifton.com.)
Back To Ministry
One of the most difficult parts of moving West in the way we did was completely severing ourselves from a community of friends and colleagues which we had built up over 20 years, then literally starting from scratch 3,000 miles away in a place where nobody knew you.
We had to throw ourselves into the hands of God, trusting him to rebuild our lives from the ground up however he saw fit. (It seems like madness even now, as I write it.)
We were utterly powerless. Yet one of the earliest messages God spoke to my heart as we began this crazy chapter was, “Use your power.” “But I have no power!” I would protest in prayer. But that wasn’t true. I did have power. I had 25 years of ministry experience. I could write. I could speak. I was comfortable meeting new people. I could command a room. I was a semi-pro racquetball player back in the day.
When you have no community, priority #1 is finding one. So in addition to the writing, I sent notes out to pastors and leaders all around me to see who might sit down and have a coffee with me. We visited all sorts of churches, where I introduced myself to others, and told our story. We began to lead a small group for a nearby church.
Racquetball proved immensely useful. At a nearby LA Fitness, my lethal killshot put me in the orbit of a new group of friends, among them a gregarious Christian entrepreneur and leader who embraced me, and has become one of my dearest friends.
I needed a few friends like that, because the early days of this networking were painfully lonely. David cried out to God in Psalm 142:4 from a cave he was hiding in – “Look to the right and see: there is none who takes notice of me; no refuge remains to me; no one cares for my soul.” You can say that again, David.
One of the early lessons I learned – and I say this firmly with all my pastoral authority – is that most churches and most pastors need to step up their game when it comes to that which the Bible calls koinonia (i.e. fellowship). A majority of pastors ignored my connection attempts altogether.
Janis’ injury occurred before we had visited one church or I had played one game of racquetball. I’ve never felt so desperate before in my life. I did what a Christian ought to do – I reached out to nearby churches, and said, “Hey, I’m a 25-year pastor; we just moved into town and don’t know anyone. My wife’s been seriously hurt. Would you pray for us? Do you have a care-team that might be able to visit? Connect us to some area doctors? Provide a meal?”
And do you know what Janis and I heard? Crickets. One meal from one couple from one church was brought. The Christians are all friendly here. ‘California kindness’ is a thing. But kindness is not koinonia. Most of that 3-month stretch Janis and I weathered alone. And though our home church in Connecticut kept the cards and prayers coming, even the southwest district of the denomination I had served in for more than two decades completely ignored us.
But slowly from that vulnerable position of absolute weakness, where it was nothing but slippery, shifting sand underneath us, we began to find our footing. One out of ten pastors did have coffee with me, and slowly acquaintances and some friendships began to stir to life. And at last, a professional connection developed with another conference of churches, who took the time to look me in the eyes, examine my resume, and explore my heart, then said, “Hmm, there’s something with this dude.”
Early in 2018, after a year-and-a-half of not preaching, I began filling the pulpit for churches affiliated with Transformation Ministries around LA. The furnace of my preaching engines roared into flame and by the end of the year, I had served in my first assignment as an interim pastor with TM, and also led my first men’s ‘Training For Godliness’ conference built off my purity work.
As 2019 dawned, more preaching opportunities came, then a second interim assignment, and then came the full green light from God that it was time to return to fulltime work as a pastor.
From California To California
We came West with the assurance from the Lord at the time of his choosing, he would open up new doors for ministry for us. That’s all we knew. We didn’t know whether California was meant to be something more lasting, or just a season.
I fell in love with southern California’s Mediterranean climate. Twenty New England winters had broken my back (literally and figuratively), and like I told all my friends back East, “You don’t have to shovel sunshine.” But if I was playing the part of Abraham, then my Sarah was struggling. The Hollywood flirtation was fun, but you couldn’t build a life off of that, and Janis’ first love – teaching equine therapy – found few outlets here.
In 2018, she was invited back East to teach two semesters at the horse center she helped found back in Connecticut. Those two ten-week separations gave me some extra time to focus on marketing my writing – which now was largely finished – but frankly, they stunk.
There are all sorts of ways to discern God’s leading, and one of them is by being mindful of God’s “open-door” policy. Jesus said, “Knock and the door will be opened to you,” and so if you pursue one path, and the door closes, and you pursue another and it opens, it’s a good sign that God is nudging you along.
I began to send out resumes to churches in the West and churches in East. It was in late spring that Janis forwarded to me the profile of a church in – and I laughed out loud when I saw it – California, Maryland, and the town right next to it was, naturally, Hollywood. “Well, if that’s the one,” Janis said, “then either way you can say you’ve been called to Hollywood, California.”
When I skimmed the profile, I had to laugh again, because the things they were looking for in their next pastor matched me to a tee. “Why not?” I said, and fired them a resume packet.
Well, fast-forward to today, this 21st day of October. In ten days, on Halloween before the trick ‘r treaters descend on us, the moving truck will roll up to our Azusa townhouse, 40 months after another moving truck rolled in. And the next day, Janis and I with our two silly cats will climb aboard a Southwest flight for Baltimore to begin a new adventure with Jesus with an amazing young church called Bridgeway Community Church (planted ten years ago), and I mean young church (filled with 30s and 40s young professionals with their quivers full of arrows, i.e. lots of kids) to start a journey together which we trust and pray will be blessed.
Was It Worth It?
I’m only now beginning to take stock of where the Lord has brought us these 40 months, but my heart is filled with awe and wonder to think about it.
- Books and scripts now exist which 40 months ago were only in my head.
What will come of them, I have no idea. Each project has won or placed high in major contests. Producers are beginning to sniff around. It’s still the longest of long shots, but at least these projects exist. As does the chance that something more might happen in days to come.
- The Lord has revived my pastoring and preaching ministry.
One of my prayers as we drove West 40 months ago was, “Lord, make me more fruitful in the years I have remaining, than in all the years up till now.” How do you make a plant more fruitful? You prune it back. And the Lord certainly did that. He stripped me down to nothing but bare wood. And new fruit has appeared. A men’s conference. Helping revive two churches as an interim. Regional preaching for Train Yourself. None of this would have happened had we played it safe and stayed in Connecticut.
- Our orbit of friendships has grown.
It sounds like a Dr. Suess book, but when I think of the places we’ve gone and the people we’ve met, people who will now be lifelong, Kingdom friends, it leaves me breathless.
- Being near our daughter.
Hannah and I used to tease each other when she was in high school about “racing each other to Hollywood”. For she wanted to serve Jesus there with her love for art, and I wanted to be there with my love for writing. She beat me to it by about four years, but to have had these last 40 months near to our girl, to be able to pick up the phone and say, “Wanna meet for lunch? Wanna do a hike?”, well that’s been worth the price of admission right there.
- Experiencing Hollywood up close
Being on a set, then being on TV (SWAT, Young Sheldon, Scandal, This Is Us, The Kominisky Method), then appearing (for .46 seconds) in a $500 million movie, then being in the room with Michael Douglas, Chris Pine, Helen Hunt, Aaron Paul, Dean Norris, Shemar Moore, Patty Jenkins – all I can say is…way cool!
- Experiencing California for a season
The food. The beaches. Yosemite. Mammoth. Having a 10,000 foot mountain visible from my front deck. A couple tame earthquakes. The best writing cabin I’ll ever have. Three winters without cold and ice. Flowers every month of the year. There’s a reason so many people have come here over the years.
But there’s also a reason why so many are now fleeing…
- Experiencing God’s provision, when only God’s provision can save you.
The support we received from our Patreon donors provided the funding I needed for all the writing, networking, competitions, the pitchfests, the websites, the copyrighting, the books I needed to print, etc. Thousands of dollars were needed to keep that dream afloat. I can never thank those of you who helped enough.
As for just basic living expenses, I have no idea how we did it. California is a financial trainwreck just waiting to happen, and were it not for Hollywood and Silicon Valley propping it up, it would soon fall into the sea of insolvency.
Of all the places for God to bring us for this season! For I used to be a control freak with money. I’d looked at the budget almost weekly. I could tell you to the penny what was in the checkbook. I just couldn’t do that out here. It would have driven me insane. Every purchase we made in the first couple months was a knife twist to my heart. To write a $2,700 rent check each month shredded my soul. And that was just the start of it. Outrageous state taxes. Gas always ranging up over $3.50 a gallon.
I balanced the checkbook just once a month. I stopped tracking expenses. Every time Dave Ramsey came on the radio, I shut him off. Six months into our adventure, Janis looked at me with astonishment and yelled, “Who are you?!” Yet here we are 40 months into the journey, and I can’t tell you with any precision how in the world we made it, and how in the world we are still leaving here with money in the bank. A year in, the engine in our newer car, a Corolla, blew up, and we had to sink $3,500 into a newer engine. It ended up being a blessing in disguise. With our 2002 Accord still plugging along, the fear of having to buy a car while out here never materialized. Truly, our sandals did not wear out in the wilderness.
But God is so amazing. And the best part of all of this now is that I can look my Lord and Savior straight in the eyes on my first day in eternity and not have to hang my head in shame and say, “Sorry Lord, but I chickened out. I couldn’t trust you that you’d catch us.”
For catch us he did. And now I can’t wait to leave this California Adventure for a new California Adventure.
Ready or not, Maryland…here we come.
Bear Clifton is a pastor, writer and screenwriter. His blogs, screenplays and devotionals can be enjoyed at his ministry website: trainyourselfministry.com and his writing website: blclifton.com. Bear is also the author of “Train Yourself To Be Godly: A 40 Day Journey Toward Sexual Wholeness”, “Ben-Hur: The Odyssey”, “A Sparrow Could Fall”, and his latest – “Living Under The Cross”, a collection of essays on the Beatitudes – all available through Amazon.