Sometimes salvation is found in the strangest places: a true story.
Aaron Hartzler grew up in a home where he was taught that at any moment the Rapture could happen. That Jesus might come down in the twinkling of an eye and scoop Aaron and his family up to heaven. As a kid, Aaron was thrilled by the idea that every moment of every day might be his last one on planet Earth.
But as Aaron turns sixteen, he finds himself more attached to his earthly life and curious about all the things his family forsakes for the Lord. He begins to realize he doesn't want the Rapture to happen just yetnot before he sees his first movie, stars in the school play, or has his first kiss. Eventually Aaron makes the plunge from conflicted do-gooder to full-fledged teen rebel.
Whether he's sneaking out, making out, or playing hymns with a hangover, Aaron learns a few lessons that can't be found in the Bible. He discovers that the best friends aren't always the ones your mom and dad approve of, and the tricky part about believing is that no one can do it for you.
In this funny and heartfelt coming-of-age memoir, debut author Aaron Hartzler recalls his teenage journey to find the person he is without losing the family that loves him. It's a story about losing your faith and finding your place and your own truthwhich is always stranger than fiction.
|Publisher:||Little, Brown Books for Young Readers|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.20(d)|
|Age Range:||14 - 17 Years|
About the Author
Aaron Hartzler grew up in Kansas City, mainly on the Missouri side. A writer and an actor, he splits his time between Los Angeles and Palm Springs, where he lives with his boyfriend, Nathan, and their two dogs, Charlie and Brahms. Rapture Practice is his first book. Aaron invites you to visit him online at www.aaronhartzler.com.
Read an Excerpt
By Aaron Hartzler
Little, Brown Books for Young ReadersCopyright © 2013 Aaron Hartzler
All rights reserved.
I am four years old, and Dad is teaching me to play dead.
"Remember, when I pick you up, you have to stay limp like a rag doll," he says. "If you swing your arms or kick your legs onstage, the audience will know you're alive."
Dad is directing a play at the Bible college where he teaches. He has cast me in the role of a little boy who gets struck and killed by a Roman chariot while running across the street to meet Jesus. The chariot wreck happens offstage. Dad explained it would cost too much money to have a horse gallop across the stage pulling a chariot, which was disappointing; however, I do get carried on dead, which I find very exciting. This excitement makes it challenging to keep still.
Tonight, we practiced my seventeen lines at the dining room table, then moved into the living room to work on being dead. I lie down on the couch, close my eyes, and feel Dad's arms slide under me. Slowly, he lifts me into the air. I concentrate on letting my limbs dangle loosely while Dad walks around the living room.
"Great, Aaron!" he says. "You're really getting it. Now, keep your eyes closed, but don't frown."
I've been thinking so hard about not kicking my legs I've scrunched up my forehead. When he mentions it, I can feel the tension between my eyes. Slowly, I let my face relax.
"That's it!" Dad says. I can tell he's pleased. It makes me want to smile, but I don't move a muscle because I'm dead. Dad walks around the living room one more time, then gently lays me back down on the couch. When I open my eyes, he is grinning at me.
"Good job, son!"
Rehearsing for the play is the most fun Dad and I have ever had together. He is very encouraging and has a lot of great tips on how to look as authentically dead as possible.
In the weeks before opening night, Mom sews me two identical pale green linen tunics with dark green satin trim. She distresses one of them with scissors and a cheese grater, then smears it with dirt and red paint so it appears to have been worn by a small boy who met an untimely demise beneath pointy hooves and chariot wheels.
Finally, the big day arrives, and when I come offstage from my last scene before the chariot wreck, Mom and one of the girls in the play cover me in dirt and wounds made of lipstick and greasepaint. Once they are done roughing me up, I stop to take a good look at myself in the mirror. My eyes are blackened, and blood appears to be seeping out of my hairline, spilling from gashes on my arms and legs and dripping through the tattered tunic. The effect is startling.
I make a mental note against death by chariot.
The student who carries me on "dead" is very strong, and I can feel his biceps bulge under my shoulder blades when he picks me up. I remind myself not to smile, and completely relax in his arms.
My eyes are closed, but I feel the heat of the bright lights on my face when he steps through the curtain onto the stage, and I can hear people in the audience gasp. I love the sound of that gasp. It means what I am doing is working.
After the curtain call, Dad assures me I was very convincing as a little dead boy. Grandma confirms this by running up and clutching me wildly to her bosom.
"That was terrible!" she tells Dad. "I never want to see Aaron dead again."
On the way home, I can smell the red greasepaint still caked in my hair as Dad tells me what a good job I did. "Aaron, your facial expressions and vocal inflections were excellent," he says, beaming. "Jesus is coming back very soon, and there are so many people who need to be saved. Folks who won't go to church will come to see a play. We are using quality biblical drama to reach lost souls for Christ."
Acting is an amazing gift Dad has given me. It allows me to be close to him in a whole new way—like I'm his partner. It makes us a team. Even better, my acting pleases Jesus, too. What I am doing onstage is not only good, it's important.
When we get home, Mom hustles me into a steamy bath and shampoos the greasepaint out of my hair. The warm water turns dark crimson and leaves a ring around the white tub. Mom gives me one last rinse under the showerhead to wash away the makeup, then wraps me up in a thirsty towel. I smile as I watch the bloodred suds circle the drain.
I can't wait to play dead again tomorrow night.
"Boys and girls, I am so excited that you could make it to Good News Club today!"
I am six years old, and this is how Mom gets the ball rolling at the Bible club she hosts in our family room every Thursday after school. She is pretty and petite, and her light Southern accent wraps pure love around the words "boys and girls," like butter dripping off a crescent roll at Thanksgiving dinner. Kids from all over the neighborhood flock to our front door for a taste of that warmth. We may be the only house in Kansas City that doesn't have a television set, but we've got something better: my mom. Once everyone is settled on the couch or the carpet, she bathes us all in her billion-watt smile and kicks things off with a question:
"Who can tell Miss Belinda what the Good News is?"
Hands fly up all around the room with shouts and moans of enthusiasm. My friend Krista waves like a flag in a hurricane, trying to get her hand higher than her brother's. A homeschooled boy who lives down the block bounces up and down in his seat, shouting out answers over the noise. Mom spreads her hands wide and calls for silence.
"Oooooh! Boys and girls. I forgot, I did! I forgot to tell y'all a secret!"
A hush falls over the family room. Everyone leans forward. What could the secret be?
"Miss Belinda has funny ears. When I ask a question, I can only hear you if you raise your hand and then sit very still until I call on you." Mom clasps her hands across the skirt of her denim jumper and waits. I love watching her in action each week. She's a pro at crowd control, and always happiest when she's teaching a group of children about Jesus. Her face lights up like she's about to offer you the most incredible gift you have ever received, and if you asked her, she'd tell you that's exactly what she's doing. It's a gift anyone can have, free for the taking:
"Now. Let's try this again," Mom says. "Boys and girls! Who can tell Miss Belinda what the Good News is?"
Hands shoot up from ramrod-stiff arms. Everyone is silent, but the tension of limbs straining toward the ceiling threatens to pop shoulders from sockets. Mom's eyes twinkle, wide with amazement. She makes a show of seeking out the quietest, most earnest would-be answer-giver, but I have a hunch she's already chosen someone.
"Oh ... my. Yes! Boys and girls! You are making this a very difficult decisi—Randy!"
Mom calls on one of the unchurched children in our midst. Randy's drug-addled mother ran off shortly after his birth, leaving him with his aging grandparents on the next block over. One wall of his bedroom is lined with shelves filled floor to ceiling with He-Man action figures. There is something truly intriguing to me about the rippled plastic stomachs and fur-trimmed bikini briefs of the men who inhabit the Castle Grayskull. I often ask if I can go visit Randy, but Mom is firm.
"Aaron, honey, it doesn't please the savior to play with little plastic men who look like demons." She smiles and squeezes my shoulder. "Besides, sugar, Jesus is the Master of the Universe."
Randy doesn't know very much about the Bible. In response to simple questions like "What is the Good News?," he often waxes on at length about characters from Greek mythology. However, in the spirit of ongoing outreach to this poor, lost boy, Mom continues to call on him each week and ignore his answers about Atlas and Cronus.
"You see, Randy," Mom says, "those tales about Zeus are only made-up stories, but Jesus is real. He was an actual person who walked on earth just two thousand years ago, and the Bible, God's holy word, tells us the Good News is that Jesus died on the cross for our sins, rose again, and is coming back very soon to take everyone who believes in him up to heaven."
Each week, Mom patiently explains the Good News, and each week Randy nods and smiles with a quizzical look that says it all: He doesn't understand how the stories he knows are different from the ones Mom tells him.
"We'll talk about that more in a minute." Mom smiles. "Right now, we're gonna get things started off with a song."
In a way, I understand Randy's confusion—I don't know who Atlas is just like he doesn't know who Jesus is—but the songs we sing at Good News Club help explain the plan of salvation. Sometimes, the Gospel message can be more easily understood when set to a catchy tune.
The illustrated song Mom chooses from her stack of visual aids is my favorite. It's called "Countdown!" Rendered in bright shades of purple and red, the front cover is emblazoned with a picture of the Apollo spacecraft hurtling toward the moon. She asks for a volunteer to help her turn the pages so everyone can see the words. Once more, hands are held high and waved with excitement. It isn't so much about holding the song—it's being chosen that feels good. Mom picks Krista, then calls me up to the front as well.
"Aaron is going to help us sing, too, because there is a very special ending to this song, and we'd like to show y'all what it is."
The anticipation in the air is electric. As I take my place up front next to Mom, she winks at me. "Ready?"
I smile back, and Mom gives a quick nod as the signal to begin.
The tune is peppy and joyous, all about how Jesus has gone to outer space to prepare heaven for every Christian who has trusted him as savior. We sing at the top of our lungs about being ready for Jesus to come back, and watching the clouds for his return, and we count backward during the chorus: "Ten! Nine! Eight! Seven! Six! Five! Four! Three! Two! One ..."
As we repeat the final line of the song, our voices get softer and softer, and I show the other kids how to crouch closer and closer to the carpet. By the end, we are almost whispering: "The countdown's getting lower every day...." Then there's a tense moment of silence before we yell "BLASTOFF!" and spring from the floor, hurling ourselves into the air as high as we can.
In this moment, as I fly toward the bumpy popcorn texture of the family room ceiling, the excitement swells in my chest. I love this song so much—not only because we get to jump at the end but also because it explains the way my family lives.
This song reminds me why we don't have a TV, or go to movies, or listen to rock music; why Mom never wears pants—only skirts and dresses. It's all because Jesus is coming back, and each of these things is another way we can be different from the world around us. When unsaved people see that our family is different, they will want to know why, and we'll have the perfect opportunity to share the Good News.
I've already trusted Jesus to be my personal Lord and savior. The day I prayed and asked Jesus to come into my heart I was born again. Now I don't have to worry about being left behind when Jesus comes back to take all the Christians to heaven. I can't wait to be caught up in the twinkling of an eye to meet the Lord in the air.
As I fly toward the ceiling in Good News Club, I am grinning so hard my cheeks hurt. I can't help but smile. I have been chosen by God to help spread the Good News, and it feels good to be chosen. Our whole family is on God's team, helping to rescue souls from an eternity in hell. We are headed to heaven, and no movie, TV show, or Top 40 hit could ever compare to the things God has planned for us there. It's my job to tell as many people about Jesus as I can. Helping Mom with Good News Club is one of the ways I can do that.
Each time I sing "Countdown!" I get goose bumps. What if Jesus came back right as I yelled "BLASTOFF!" and jumped up in the air? I bet I'd keep right on going! I'd zip through the ceiling, and the living room above us, then shoot out the roof to meet Jesus in the clouds!
Today, that doesn't happen. As my sneakers land on the carpet again, I look around and see all my friends laughing and grinning. Mom squeezes my shoulder and whispers "Thank you!" for my help leading the song. She smiles at me as I take a seat on the floor, next to Randy. I'm not the slightest bit disappointed I didn't get whisked away to heaven this time. Whether it happens today, or tomorrow, or a year from now, I know one thing for certain: Jesus is coming back, and I'm ready whenever he is.
In the meantime, Good News Club is excellent practice.
The Memphis skyline looms above Interstate 40, just across the Mississippi River, which meanders past my window, a wide, wet border between Arkansas and Tennessee. As Dad guides our station wagon onto the Hernando de Soto Bridge, we start the countdown:
We all cheer as the car passes under the big sign in the middle of the bridge that reads TENNESSEE: THE VOLUNTEER STATE WELCOMES YOU, and then Mom leads us in a chorus of the hymn we sing at church as the ushers walk down the aisle to start passing the collection plates:
Praise God from whom all blessings flow
Praise Him all creatures here below
Praise Him above ye heavenly hosts
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost
The nine-hour drive from Kansas City to Memphis is a long haul, but worth it. As we drive past the buildings downtown, I know we're only twenty minutes away from Nanny and Papa's house, where the TV is always on and there's sugar-sweetened cereal in the pantry.
Nanny comes out on the porch when she sees the station wagon pull into the carport. There are hugs and kisses, and a twinkle in her eye.
"I declare, children. I went to the A&P to get groceries, but I didn't know which cereal y'all liked, so you'll have to come back with me to pick it out." I cheer along with Josh and Miriam as Nanny takes our new baby brother, Caleb, from Mom, and Dad drags duffel bags and suitcases into the house.
When we get to the grocery store, most of the employees know Nanny by name. They greet her as we walk through the door.
"Hey, Miz Davis."
"Hey, y'all." Nanny smiles and wheels a cart past the checkout lanes. "These are my grandchildren from Kansas City. We're headed down the cereal aisle to go toy shopping."
Mom doesn't buy sweetened cereal at home. "You can concentrate better at school if your blood sugar doesn't crash midway through the morning," she tells me. The Cheerios and Wheaties on our breakfast table never have special prizes in the box, but at Nanny's house Mom makes an exception, and the milk in our bowls turns brown with chocolate or pink with food coloring. "Every now and then won't hurt," she says, smiling.
Each of us gets to choose a box of any kind of cereal we want. The Apple Jacks have a rubber stamp set that comes with every letter of the alphabet and an ink pad, so that's what I pick—I'm seven now, and know how to spell better than Miriam or Josh. When we get home, Nanny pours it all out in a big Tupperware container so I don't have to wait for breakfast to play with the prize, and I set to work hand stamping a copy of the Bible verse she has pasted on the refrigerator door: Ephesians 5:18: "Be filled with the spirit."
The next morning at breakfast, I fill up on a bowl of buttery grits with salt and pepper while Nanny makes eggs, biscuits, and gravy for Papa, Mom, and Dad. Grits are my favorite, but I finish them fast so I can move on to Apple Jacks. Mom smiles and nods at my empty bowl, then Nanny rinses it out and fills it with cereal. The crispy coating on the bright orange loops scrapes the roof of my mouth. The taste is so sweet it's like having dessert for breakfast.
Nanny kisses the top of my head as I crunch, then sits down at the table with a cup of fresh coffee. Her lipstick leaves a red smudge on the rim of her mug. She doesn't wear any other makeup on a daily basis, so the lipstick is important. "I need just a touch," she says, "so folks won't think we're Pentecostal."
Nanny winks at me and squeezes my hand. "Your uncle Bill is bringing Sadie over later." Sadie's my favorite cousin, but we only get to see each other a couple times a year—usually over Christmas and during the summer. "Last week Sadie had this little brown stuffed animal with her," Nanny says. "It was a doll of that E.T. fella from the new alien movie."
Excerpted from Rapture Practice by Aaron Hartzler. Copyright © 2013 Aaron Hartzler. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.
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