I had the barbell about sixty percent of the way up when I heard God speak to me. Now, I’d set up a convenient appointment earlier that day to hear from God, but He chose to wait until I was on the weight bench in my basement, an idiot without a spotter, two hundred pounds of potmetal shivering over my rib cage.
“You know what?” He said.
“Hey. Later. A little help here?”
“You know what?”
“You’re already successful. You’re already loved by Me, no matter how many books you write, how many ministries you start. You’ve already won.”
I had to tip one end of the bar over to rest on the floor and shimmy out from under the other end. I didn’t finish that rep, but I was already successful. It was something I’d heard years ago in a Mike Bickle sermon, but, like so many essential Christian truths, had lost in the roiling vat of information I call a memory. The heavier truths sink. We have to keep diving for them over and over.
Packing it in for the night, I typed out my first new idea for my manuscript in over a year and a half, when I’d last set it aside to focus on other pursuits, and made my decision: I was going to Realm Makers.
I hadn’t been to the Christian speculative fiction writing conference since my first trip nearly three years earlier. That weekend had injected me with inspiration and education in equal doses, forcing me to finish the third draft of A Legion of Gods, my “automotive fantasy” novel. I sent it to some friends for feedback, got started on a new draft, then…
Regret isn’t exactly the word for this. Eliminating debt, getting into better shape, and planting the seeds for a local car ministry that God has put on my heart- I don’t regret any of these things. But they had distracted me. And at some level, I just didn’t think I could be a successful writer and balance the rest of these goals. Maybe someday.
But I needed to go back to Realm Makers. It was time to complicate my life again.
Yet even after I’d registered, picked out my classes, and booked my room, I still wondered if I was making the right move. Writing took up a fraction of what it once had in my life. I was tapping around here and there, a contemporary wilderness fantasy story about a guy who drove a priest and a wizard into a region invaded by evil monsters. A space adventure about a theoretical physicist and an ace starfighter pilot. Even a mid-grade idea set in the same world as A Legion of Gods. But none of it had solidified too much. More telling, I hadn’t dedicated time to write every day.
It just seemed like God was leading me in a different direction. That maybe someday I’d pick up Legion again and get back to work, as I will with my first novel attempt, the awful, sprawling YA epic Sing Back the Darkness. (Probably.)
Another awesome conference would surely focus my life back into the realm of writing, and I had so many other things going on. Important things! I couldn’t afford this!
Still I felt God calling me back to the conference, to learn, make friends, and get some inspiration. I had nothing to pitch, I told Him. I’d be the guy still working on the same wrung out idea he had been for three years.
“That’s cool, man,” said God cheerily. “Remember, you’re already successful.” Great.
I almost bailed anyway the night before. I was set to drive out there from Kansas City on Thursday morning, and Tuesday I woke myself up before dawn, raking at my skin, itching like I haven’t in years. Thinking it was the old foe of the American ginger, poison ivy, I spent the next two days trying every remedy I could remember, all while polishing up a bit of my manuscript and finishing my costume for the awards banquet.
Yet the hives persisted, coming and going in waves, turning any areas experiencing repeated cloth contact, like the hems of by shorts and shirt sleeves, into a torrid mass of welts and agony. Any scratching made it worse.
Wednesday night, knowing I’d actually need to sleep before carving a blacktop line across the whole of Missouri, I gave up and went to the emergency room. At this point it was slacklining between a belligerent ignorance of God’s closing a door and an angry defiance of the enemy’s hurdles for me. Good or bad, nothing was going to stop me from getting to St. Louis.
“Oh, that’s pretty much everywhere, then?” said the ER doc. I looked like Wade Wilson with hair. He didn’t think it was poison ivy, though, and gave me some meds. (Hello, Prednisone, my old friend.) “This should take care of it. But if you start having trouble breathing, if you feel your airway constricted, come back and see us right away.”
Thursday morning I woke up almost itch-free, though the fire broke through my skin progressively as I headed east, fighting the soporific effects of the Benadryl with enough caffeine to scar my brain. I still wondered if I was making a mistake, wasting time and money.
But then I arrived. In the lobby I glimpsed Steve Laube chatting with Gillian Bronte Adams, whose Song of Leira had just rocked my soul when I’d just finished it earlier that week. I met JL Ender, author of Portal World. “Hey, God, I’m writing a portal fantasy! How about that?”
“Yeah, pretty cool, right?” Everywhere I saw dragons and superheroes, Jedi and steampunks, and I began to immediately feel at home.
Mary Weber’s opening keynote wasn’t at all what I’d expected. She launched us into our fun and whimsical weekend with a discussion on pain. Deep, profound, stratified pain. We could put our pain on the page, she said. This, more than any of our fine-honed skill or shoe-in connection, would allow us to reach those experiencing the same pain, such as the youth in Mary’s ministry- and show them a shaft of hope leading out of it. This was our calling, our burden. We could literally save lives by bleeding on the page.
By now I was itching fresh and fully, but suddenly my desire to remove the whole of my skin took a back seat. It’s not about me. It’s about being a part of what God is doing. For the weirdos like me. The awkward kids on the bench who no one else will reach out to. The ones who get more truth from bizarre story than many ever could from fact. This is our charge, and the enemy knows it, and we won’t go unopposed.
I went to bed that night repurposed and ready.
I woke up burning at 3:30. Every touch made me convulse with itching. My heart raced, and I shivered and sweat. And my throat felt constricted. Did it? Maybe. Wait. I might suffocate. Maybe was enough to get myself dressed and on the road to the nearest ER. I was halfway there when I started screaming at my windshield. By the time I arrived I was shaking so violently I couldn’t stand up straight.
They shot me full of Epinephrine. Oh, the new experiences you have at conferences. Two other IV drugs followed, and I was finally able to stop shivering and take deeper breaths. The raised, red hives covering about 90 percent of my body sank back down, and I faded into a warm, comfortable numbness.
I watched three episodes of The Office on my phone.
At 6:30 I was discharged and headed back to the conference. As I drove, watching the newborn summer sunlight gild the crowns of the vaguely brutalist, suburban hotels and the cell antennae they wore like thorny crowns, I smiled and remembered the opposition Mary had talked about the day before. None of the medical professionals I’d seen yet could explain the hives. As I type this, I still don’t know what caused this reaction. But I know that God wanted me at Realm Makers, so the forces of Hell didn’t.
This theme was repeated several times throughout the day in my various classes. “Chaos will destroy your heart, and therefore your art,” said Allen Arnold at the start of his excellent series on creativity in the midst of chaos. Allen stressed the need to see chaos not as a barrier, but a path, a guide for my creativity. Like our Creator at His sculpting of the world, we could see chaos and make something of it.
In that first meeting, Allen also touched on the meaning of “success,” and how God defines it differently than we do. That sounded familiar.
The banquet. Listen, I have nerdy friends at home. A handful of people who understand. But being surrounded by a whole battalion of new friends, each one as beautifully unique and enthusiastic about story as the next, each in loving Christ with a devotion that deepens those stories like nothing else ever could, it was edifying.
The response to my Captain America costume, created by my incredibly talented friend Lyndsay, was a surprising encouragement. Most of the night I barely noticed the fiery rash creeping back up my chest and down my arms. Even after the party was over, I lingered with a knot of mostly brand new friends, chatting about Brandon Sanderson and the DC Universe and all manner of geekdom until after midnight. I felt at home.
Yet the itch, and perhaps the lingering effects of the vial of artificial adrenaline I’d taken that morning, persisted until about 3:30, when I was finally able to drift off while reading Pierce Brown’s Iron Gold.
That lasted about half an hour until I was out of bed again, pacing the room so the sheets couldn’t scratch me, the itch flaring on the souls of my feet as they scrubbed against the carpet. This wasn’t like last night. I could breathe. I only shook with moderate violence. I didn’t need the ER. But I didn’t know what else to do. Sleep was out of the question, though the rash cooled back down as the sun rose.
I watched three more Office episodes on my laptop, then started my day.
During his breakfast session, Bryan Davis shared several stories of people who had written him about how his books had changed, and sometimes even saved, their lives. I told him afterward that I’d been feeling opposed all conference long, but that being here felt right because of it. He said he has thousands of letters like the ones he’d mentioned earlier. God uses our art to touch lives in a way that nothing else can.
Before the first elective of the day, Wayne Thomas Batson’s Behind Locked Doors, I had a quick editor appointment with Andrew Winch to talk about the opening chapters of A Legion of Gods. Even in those twenty minutes, he gave me so much helpful feedback, most notably that I didn’t need most of the first chapter at all. I quite liked the first chapter. But it made sense.
I took a few minutes to type up some thoughts from the meeting before heading to Wayne’s class. As I walked in, before I even sat down, Wayne mentioned that the first time he submitted his first novel, The Door Within, they told him to dump the first three chapters.
“Hey kid,” said God, “you think you’re in the right place?”
“I was not born to write and die having written books,” said Mary Weber in her closing keynote. Success was not having big stack of works with my name on them, but instead a sense of soul completion. I might not accomplish everything I want to, she said, but I was already successful, because I’m already loved. Success is living as if Jesus loves me.
At this point it had been over 36 hours since my trip to the ER, so I blame sleep deprivation for the tears that started flowing, but maybe I’d needed that weakened state to let this truth about success sink in yet again.
From the weight room at the beginning of the month to Allen Arnold’s session to Mary’s closing sermon, God kept using them all to hammer the same truth home. “I already love you. You’re already enough. You’re already successful! Just follow Me, just keep listening to my voice, stay obedient, and you’ll be successful in all the ways that really matter.”
Even Andrew’s editing advice from the morning seemed to echo this truth. Could I have accepted the need to trash my darling chapter one without the 18 months it had spent on the shelf? I hadn’t been ready to hear it back when I’d written it. But I was now.
And now God is setting new standards for my days: A little less of my side gig running deliveries for Postmates, even if it means buying my house a little later. Get up a little earlier. Write every day. Network with this amazing new family.
And most of all, don’t worry. Don’t freak out about trying to balance a future car ministry, and writing, and church life, and social life, and fitness, and money, in order to gain success. Just obey, because you’re already successful.
Driving home on Sunday morning, the hives contenting themselves to gnaw just the tops of my feet, and having said goodbye to friends new and old, trying to stave off the sharp pikes and arrows of knowledge that I won’t see most of them for a while yet, I was struck with the feeling that I was returning to the Shire a different person, a shirt of mail on under my clothes, having seen great adventures.
Wait. Surely Kansas City and my huge church and my huge group of friends was Minas Tirith, that home was the big place, and that this tiny town of writers in a hotel was my Hobbiton. But no, this trip back west felt like a diminishing, a shrinking in grandeur, a return to normal things, to chores and work and the turning mill on the pond. There was no doubt about it.
These Realmies, this knot of weird, wonderful, socially awkward storytellers had, for just a few days, produced a Middle Earth to change me like a full year’s adventure. Somehow our concentrated imagination and creativity had built a far, wide continent, and another beyond the Sea, and now I just want to go back.
But I suppose now it’s up to me to make those realms for others.