Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Journey to Rome: Converting with kids

Yosef, Anna and Biniam in front of the Nativity scene after 10 pm Mass on Christmas Eve

When you have seven kids, you don't do anything alone.  :)

This part of our journey has actually been tricky at times.  To be honest, part of me was positively terrified as I gradually came to the conclusion (as did my husband) that we needed to convert to CatholicismBecause it's one thing to quietly assent to Church teaching, and it's another to instruct your children in those things.  I felt a heavy weight of responsibility, and all of the dogmas and doctrines that were difficult for me to wrap my head around were completely magnified when attempting to explain them to our kids. 

And, our kids had questions.  When we talked to them about needing to leave our church for the Catholic Faith, they wanted to know things like, "But don't the people at our church love Jesus too?"  Yes, yes they do.  "Well why do we have to go to a different church, then?"  And although Mass is shorter than most Protestant church services, the kids are in the pew with us the whole time.  So initially, they felt as if Mass wasn't as "fun" as our Protestant church.  "My knees hurt when we have to kneel!  Why do we have to stand and sit so much?  Why don't we get to go to Children's Church?"  And my oldest took communion as a Protestant, so she of course wanted to know why she can't yet receive the Eucharist at Mass. 

All of this was hard for me, because my children have always, always loved church.  I want this component of their spiritual life to be a positive thing, and most of all I want them to embrace the Mass--and ultimately the Catholic Faith--because we believe it is Christ's Church.

So suffice it to say that we had a lot of discussions.  We talked about how not everyone who loves Jesus is Catholic.  We explained however that we wanted to be Catholic, because we believe it is the fullness of faith and God's desire for His children.  We told them about the Reformation.  We explained the Mass and how we get to witness the miracle of the bread and wine becoming Jesus' actual body and blood, just like He and Paul talk about in the Bible.

And wouldn't you know it, in God's mercy our kids started getting the hang of the whole thing.  They quickly made some dear buddies at our parish.  They adore--and I mean, adore--our wonderful (and patient-with-small-children) priest.  They (usually) know when to genuflect and kneel and stand and make the sign of the cross and pray, and they (usually) all say the Our Father and Nicene Creed when it's time.  They know the Hail Mary and the Guardian Angel prayer and, um, know more about the Rosary than I do.

And wanna know what I'm discovering?  

The Catholic Faith is, for lack of a better word, earthy.  Ultimately, Catholics believe that God uses the stuff of this earth in supernatural ways.  And while there may not be any flannelgraph or glitter glue or Sunday School Charlie involved, the Catholic Faith is (in many ways) actually easier for kids to grasp.  The crucifix vs. an empty cross, the bells during the Consecration, different postures during the Mass, incense and prayers and statues and Holy Water and Rosary beads.  Things you can see, hear, smell, touch.  Perfect for children (and adults!) to worship God and actively participate in His Church. 

And the truth is that my kids see some things much more naturally than I do.  Mary as our mother, for example.  And the Sacrament of Baptism with its washing away of original sin.  They just get it.  No, they wouldn't be able to write a theological discourse on any of it (although my oldest did come up with a GREAT analogy about Baptism last week!), but they get it.  Faith like a child and all that.

In many ways I suppose we're playing catch-up.  I bet (and hope!) my kids' kids will be better catechized than mine, because I officially became a Catholic at age 30, as opposed to age 7 or 4 or 2.  But we're doing our best, and God continues to be gracious with us.

There are several resources and practices I've found helpful along the way in making this transition as a family, and I'll plan to share those with you later this week.  In the meantime I hope you're having a wonderful Christmas!

Saturday, December 24, 2011


Having just converted to Catholicism two months ago, this is our first Advent we've celebrated as Catholics.  And, surprise surprise, I've loved it.

The Liturgical Calendar is pretty amazing in and of itself.  The fact that this is how the Church has marked time for centuries-upon-centuries is remarkable.  The idea that we can build our faith around the seasons is really beautiful.

And prior to a year ago, I really didn't know much about Advent, beyond the wreath with the four candles (why IS that one pink?) that was lit weekly in churches I attended.  I guess I'd always just assumed that Advent was another word for the Christmas season.

But it turns out that Advent is actually all about preparation, penance, and the anticipation of Jesus coming to earth as a baby to save the world.  And the pink candle is there as a reminder of the joy that will come at Christmas.  (So glad I finally got that figured out!)

This really has been an amazing past four weeks for me.  We've been reading the daily Mass readings each day at home (Old Testament, responsorial Psalm, and Gospel) and OH my goodness, we will be continuing with this.  It is positively amazing to see the prophecies and what they point to, and how everything ties together.  We've been trying to make it to weekday Mass at least once a week, which has also been incredible (although a bit stressful on account of the two-year-olds, who find it perfectly acceptable to occasionally start babbling while the priest is talking.) 

To be honest, I find that Christmas makes so much more SENSE...it is so much fuller and easier and Christ-focused and more beautiful to celebrate...when it is observed in its context.  We spend four weeks preparing our hearts and minds for Jesus, reflecting on Mary's willingness to say yes, on John the Baptist's preparing the way, all of it.  My kids have such a deeper understanding and appreciation of Christmas too. 

So as my first official Advent comes to a close, as the anticipation leads into celebration of Christ's Mass (did you know that's what the word Christmas means and comes from?!), I am ever so grateful for the Church, the Liturgical year with its seasons and feast and fast days, for Mary and the role God gave her in redemption, and most of all for Jesus who came into our world as a baby to save us from our sins. 

Gifts are wrapped and under the tree, the fudge is made, my cards are ready to be mailed out (Christmas lasts until Epiphany so I'm technically not late!), and we'll be at 10 pm Mass tonight.  What a joy it will be to receive Jesus in the Eucharist and kick off our Christmas celebration worshipping God come to Earth.

I hope you have a wonderful and celebratory Christmas Eve, friends!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

If I was sending out Christmas cards

This is what I would send.

Mary Lu, um, doesn't like Santa.

Never has, actually.

I honestly think this is the best photo we've taken in a long, long time.

Probably since last Christmas, when we snapped this gem:

And let's be honest: who really wants a bunch of polished, happy-shiny-people-holding-hands photos of their kids with Santa anyway?  That's just boring.

So I'll take my angry kid on Santa's lap any ol' day.

Just another Christmas with the Heldts! 

Thursday, December 15, 2011

When 7 kids is too much

I know, the title of this blogpost is perhaps a bit surprising coming from me: enthusiastic promoter of openness to life, advocate for waiting-child adoption, and now a card-carrying Catholic

But I'll be honest and say there ARE times when seven children feel like a LOT.
When my home feels really FULL.

When life is literally speeding along and it's all just a bit too much...or so it seems.

About a month ago our two new daughters, both born with Down syndrome, underwent heart surgery...on the same day.  We were at the hospital by 6 am, I'd only gotten a few hours of sleep the night before, and while they allowed us to go home the same day, it was still completely exhausting and draining. 

A dear friend had our other five kids at her house that afternoon.  So when I brought Mekdes and Tigist home from the hospital early that evening, Kevin headed over to collect our other children.

The minute the girls and I hit the door, the exhaustion set in.  Probably the most tired and depleted I'd felt in a long time.  All I could think about was putting on pajamas and crawling into bed--too bad it was only 5 pm.  But at least the house was quiet, and calm, with just the three of us in it.  The girls were pretty subdued after the day they'd had.

But eventually, Kevin and the other five showed up.  Which meant noise.  And lots of it.  It meant five kids excitedly jockeying to see who got to give Mekdes and Tigist hugs first, it meant Anna playing the piano, Kaitlyn playing games with the two heart patients, my boys racing around talking about all the fun they'd had at our friends' house, and Mary Lu babbling away and giving me hugs.

Oh, and the questions.  "How did the surgeries go?"  "Are Mekdes and Tigist okay, mom?"  "Are they going to be okay?"

To say I was overstimulated by this point would be more than a bit of an understatement.  :)

Because I had nothing.left. at the end of that oh-so-long day, but of course my kids weren't deterred by that in the least.  It was one of those times where I look around wondering, "How do we do this every day?  How on EARTH are we surviving?  How am I going to make it until bedtime...much less until the day they turn 18?!"

And yes, I was even feeling a little sorry for myself.  Which I really hate to admit, but it's true.

But at some point, in the midst of the questions and the noise and the chaos, I looked over at Mekdes and Tigist. 

And they were smiling.  And happy.  And coming alive after a horribly traumatic day.

That's when I realized that all the NOISE was really just LIFE. 

That's when I realized that even on hard days when I want to hole up and hide and just take a time-out, life marches on in its imperfect, messy, over-the-top-loud sort of way.

And this was actually healing for my daughters!

And it continues to be healing for my daughters, who had no family, no home, for years on end.  Now, they have five extra siblings who adore them and cheer them on and pray for them and hold them during Mass.

Suddenly a day spent in the Cath Lab at Children's Hospital with surgeons and anasthesiologists isn't so scary when it ends the way most days end: big sister practicing the piano, big brothers roughhousing with each other, other big sister making up fun games to include you in, and little sister being her usual feisty self. 

Normalcy.  Boring everyday stuff, but it's apparently the mundane where healing and love and life and grace happen.

As I look back I find myself GRATEFUL for all the noise, all the people, all the life.  It is what my little girls needed, and I have to wonder if it's actually what I needed too.

It's a common belief that kids in big families have to sacrifice way more than kids in small families.

And that may very well be true, but in the long-run?  They're getting a whole lot too.

I may have been overstimulated, but an entire fan club showed up to welcome Mekdes and Tigist home like they were total heroes.

I may have wanted to call it a day at 4:45 in the afternoon, but my kids made sure that our family returned to normal first, ate a meal together, and that Mekdes and Tigist were really okay.

So, heck yeah, sometimes seven kids IS too much!

And it's honestly a really, really, really good thing. 

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

But my van made me do it!

If you're here today for some sort of deep inspiration, or for well-thought-out insights into the joys of motherhood...well...sorry.  :)

Not gonna happen, people.  Not today.

Because this is one of those keeping-it-real stories that isn't fun while it's happening, but makes for a decent blogpost.  (One of the best reasons for having a blog.  Redemption of negative life events.)

And, it's about my big van. 

My big, 15-passenger-van that isn't so difficult to drive, but is a real pain in the you-know-what to park.

So on with the story.

Sunday mornings, my three oldest kids have Catechism class before Mass.  So Kevin takes them at 9:15 (in one of our two normal-sized cars that, you know, normal people drive), and I come at 10:30 with the four younger kids...in the big van that people assume I must need a special license for.

The parking lot at our parish is not as big as the ones at Target or Costco.  And it's always super crowded. 

And this past Sunday, I could not park my van.

Nope, couldn't do it.  I attempted three.different.parking spaces., but had to give up on all of them for lack of proper space (and parking ability).

And all of this while people (yes, multiple people) were honking at me.  Yes, honking!  Meanwhile I was working up a sweat, becoming more and more anxious, and also becoming more and more convinced that I was just going to have to give up and go home.  I was imagining myself going to Confession the following week and saying "Bless me Father for I have sinned", followed by the sad and embarrassing confession that I missed Mass on account of my big, dumb car.

Thankfully though, just as I was about to give up, Kevin (and the kids) came out of the building.  And that's when I jumped OUT of my big, dumb car and said "I CAN'T PARK THIS THING!  I'M DONE!  PEOPLE ARE HONKING AT ME!"  So my ever-calm husband took over, drove around back, and did indeed find a space.  And we made it into the church right as Mass was beginning, so I suppose it all turned out okay in the end.

Except of course that I was still sweaty, completely distracted, and beyond furious that I couldn't park my car.  Not sure who I was furious at (myself?  the assorted honkers?  the engineer who obviously didn't have a bunch of kids that designed the parking lot?  all of the above?)  but I was mad just the same.  Certainly not the peaceful frame of mind you want when you're going to wrangle two noisy babies worship God and receive Jesus in the Sacrament, but alas, it is what it is.

A really spiritual blogger would now probably write something really lovely about how we can all come-as-we-are to Jesus in our frustrations and in our need (which of course we can), but I'm not going to. 

Because this story was really just all about me being annoyed and stressed out.

Which happens sometimes.

And now you have proof that I'm not good at parking my van, my anxiety level could be graphed against how many elderly people are honking at me at any given time, and I almost committed a mortal sin on Sunday.

Maybe it's time the Church appointed someone as the patron saint of parking large vehicles!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

One week home

As of yesterday, Mekdes has been home from the hospital for a week now.  Her open heart surgery was a week and a half ago.

And, oh my goodness friends, she is doing amazingly well.

The surgery itself couldn't have gone any better.

And the only sign that Mekdes has even had surgery (aside from her rather large incision wound) was that she was extremely lethargic up until a couple of days ago.  But now she's up and about and playing again.

The photo above is from Mass last Wednesday night, when we celebrated the feast of the Immaculate Conception.  Our parish had a dinner afterwards and that's Mekdes, at the table.  Only two days after we'd come home, less than a week after her surgery, and yet there she was, smiling. 

What a special time it was honoring Mary, with Mekdes, so soon after her surgery.  Mary the mother of God has actually always held a special place in my heart, even before I was Catholic.  I'd always loved the story of the Anunciation, and the Magnificat, and I think the Hail Mary is one of the most beautiful prayers ever.  And lately I've been thinking about how even when my daughter had nobody else, when she was an orphan and alone and living with some very serious heart problems...she had Jesus and His mother.  We believe, afterall, that Mary prays and intercedes for us.  And I bet she has a super special place in her heart for those without mothers. 

So, yes, Mekdes is doing quite well.  It all feels rather miraculous, really.  We are of course a bit, um, tired--what an insane past few months this has been!!!--but oh, we are blessed.

Because the truth is that amidst the surgeries and therapies and endless laundry, God is faithful, my sweet little girl is healing, and during this season of Advent I'm doing my very best to take it all in. 

Monday, December 12, 2011

Homeschooling extras

As you may or may not know, our family homeschools. (Yes, you can homeschool when you have seven children.  I promise!)  I currently have one 2nd grader and two 1st graders--this is our third year schooling at home and honestly, I love love love it.  (Well, most of the time!  Sometimes I want to rip my hair out, but usually it's awesome.  :)  )  The lifestyle, the way we have time to do things important to our family, the slower and more flexible pace, the convenience of not having all those pick-ups and drop-offs...it's great!

Of course, as every homeschooler knows, the general populace is often a little unsure about the whole thing.

People assume that kids not attending public school are socially awkward, deprived, and lacking in various academic and societal skills. 

Lately I've been thinking about how utterly absurd it all is, these silly stereotypes.  And I've been thinking that because we've been running to and fro to all manner of activities--the irony of homeschooling but not necessarily being home all that much.

So I thought I'd give you a look at some of the things we homeschoolers do that aren't actually at home.  Some proof that a homeschooled child can have a rich, full educational experience.

Two weeks ago, Anna performed in a dance production of "Babes in Toyland." 

She played one of Little Bo Peep's sheep, and did AWESOME! 

So proud of my girl!  We surprised her with (her very first) flowers right after the performance.

A typical week finds us at home (my favorite place to be, because I'm a card-carrying introvert) Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.  We spend time learning our faith (reading the Bible, reading Saint stories, praying, Catechism instruction), and studying Math, History, Language Arts, and various other things.  Sometimes we get together with friends.  We're pretty much always done with school by lunchtime.

Then on Thursdays, my three school-age kids attend an all-day school-for-homeschooled-kids.  They take Science, Art, Drama, Dance, Piano, Music...the list goes on.  They eat lunch with their buddies and get to wear backpacks and have a blast doing the typical school thing.  Anna's dance performance was through this school.

And on Fridays, we attend a homeschool co-op at our parish.  My kids LOVE it.  So do I.  Such wonderful families and my children are building community with other kids who share our faith.  We try to make it to 8 am Mass beforehand, too.  (That's Yosef painting a sculpture of St. Joseph, done by the teacher, during our ceramics unit.)

Just this past week at our co-op, we celebrated the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe (which is actually today) by making some really sweet crafts and having a little procession where each kiddo got to touch Mary's immaculate heart and give her a flower they made out of tissue paper.  It was SO cute!  (Even if the picture is blurry.)

And later, Saint Nicholas showed up (his feast day was on December 6th), talked to the kids, and handed out gold coins. 

So excited!  (I don't know why Kaitlyn always makes that face in photos, but it drives me crazy and cracks me up all at the same time.)

I'm honestly really grateful for the lifestyle we've carved out for ourselves.  I used to feel like we'd be missing out on things here and there by homeschooling, but the truth is that it's more or less the oppositeIf my children were in public school, we'd have less time for building community with other Catholic families, they wouldn't be involved in as many of the fine arts, and we'd have less time for dear friends in general.  I could go on and on about why I love homeschooling, but I'm not going to.  (Right now, anyway.)  I'll just say that our life is incredibly full and my children are blessed with a lot of pretty cool opportunities. 

And it's funny because even though we're homeschoolers, some of my favorite things about homeschooling aren't actually happening at home!

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

We're home

Mekdes, with her all-fixed-up heart, leaving the hospital yesterday.

So, we're home.  :)

Yes, home!

Open-heart surgery on Friday, and back home on Monday.

Mekdes has been making an amazing recovery.

Kids tend to heal quickly anyhow, but the nurses and doctors have been pretty amazed by just how well she has done.

I have so much I want to share, so much I've been thinking about and so much I'm grateful for.

But that will take awhile--I'm tired and there's just so much I'm still processing through.

For now, I'll simply say that I remain in awe of God's hand on my daughter.  She may only be 4 or 5 years old, but she is brave.  Strong.  Gentle.  Kind.  Not once did she complain.  Not once did she act out in frustration.  Even when there were tears, they were short-lived.  She cooperated with the nurses and doctors, gave out smiles like it was nobody's business, and said "Thank you Mama" every.single.time. I gave her food or water.

I've honestly been on the brink of the "ugly cry" for days because I've never met anybody quite like Mekdes before.  Neither had one of the nurses who'd assisted in the operating room, who came to find us on her lunch break with tears in her eyes to share how sweet Mekdes was as they took her in and put her under.

I also feel like I've witnessed the very heart of God several times this week.  In the struggling kids and babies I saw in the Cardiac ICU, and the brave moms and dads sitting by their sides.

No one, myself included, would ever choose for their child to need something like open-heart surgery.  Ever.  It's terrifying and serious and always, always complicated.  And yet I feel like God has given me, and probably those other moms and dads too, a glimpse into life and suffering and hope.  For that, I am grateful.

I took this video right as we were about to walk out the hospital doors.  Mekdes LOVES saying her siblings' names, and as tired as she was (her red blood cell count is still pretty low because she didn't have any blood transfusions), she repeated every single name.  Oh, how she adores her brothers and sisters.   

So we rejoice in God's mercy and grace, and are so, so happy to be HOME.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Surgery today

Well, she did it.

My girl had open heart surgery today.

She's in the Cardiac ICU now, and doing great.  The surgeon was successful in repairing the hole and valve defects in her heart(!), and no blood transfusion has been needed so far (although that may change, because her red blood cell count is low.)

Kevin's home with our other kiddos now (after spending the day with me at the hospital), so it's just me and (sleeping) Mekdes hanging out.

Today has been a complete and utter whirlwind of activity and emotion.  Hospital days are exhausting in every possible way, especially when the stakes are high.  I'm so, so tired, and trying to process the whole thing, and praying that recovery continues to progress well, and missing my husband and other children, and wanting to see Mekdes' huge smile so very badly.

Yet even through my sleepy haze, I am totally and utterly in awe of God's working in the life of my daughter. 

There's something really profound about having a child who was not born to you, who does not in any way exist because of you.  Who would have been here even if you never were.  So the more I learn about this beautiful little girl, the more amazed I am by her soft, sweet heart and fierce determination.  She is calm in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.  She smiles even when things are hard or confusing.  She knows what she wants...and refuses to give up.  She never, ever gives up.  She reflects God's beauty in countless new ways.

I talked to Kevin on the phone awhile ago, and he asked me how worried I'd actually been today about something going dreadfully wrong.  The truth is that I WAS worried about that...but I also knew that God is writing an incredible story with her life.  Every new chapter a testimony to God's grace, mercy and love.  That DOESN'T mean things won't go wrong, but it does mean that I can tangibly see God's faithfulness to my daughter, and I trust Him.

Last night, as Mekdes received the Sacrament of the Sick (for the second time in the mere two months she's been with us) and Father Daniel laid his hands on her head, she broke out in a huge smile.  God's provision was so evident in that moment.  A miracle.  And tonight when they took her breathing tube out and she cried, and I cried right along with her because my baby girl was afraid, God's provision was on display yet again.  A miracle.  Because Mekdes lost her first parents--and had nobody--but still God was there, and God did have a plan, and so in spite of her rocky start in life she now has a goofy mom whose eyes well up with tears when the breathing tube comes out.

Tonight my plan is to get some good sleep (thank you Children's Hospital for your window-less, private sleeping rooms) and hopefully be a comfort to Mekdes tomorrow.  Thank you SO MUCH for all of your prayers, and I'll plan to blog a little each day to keep you updated.

But for now, it's time for some much needed sleep.

It's been a big day.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011


Thanksgiving is over.

Our month-long steady-stream-of-houseguests is all gone.

My daughter's dance performance was last night.

I've packed my big kids' lunches for their homeschool school tomorrow.

And, now I'm doing laundry.

Cleaning bathrooms.


Making mental lists.

Because my daughter is having open-heart surgery on Friday.

Thursday is pre-op at the hospital--EKG, full physical, tour of the facilities, meetings with the surgeon and anaesthesiologist who will be doing the four-hour-long procedure.

Now that all of our Fall activities and visitors are over and done, I'm thinking a whole lot more about the whole thing.  About the fact that my baby, who has only been my baby for the past two months, is having a very serious surgery.  That will necessitate 7-10 days in the hospital...if there are no complications.

Kevin will thankfully be able to work from home next week, so he'll be holding down the fort here with our other six kiddos.  I'll of course be at the hospital with Mekdes.

Dear friends are watching our kids both Thursday and Friday.  Dear friends will be bringing meals to my husband and other children while Mekdes and I are at the hospital. 

This has been an incredibly humbling season in my life (to say the least!), which is definitely a good thing...but it has its challenges too.  Because I'm horrible at accepting help.  I hate feeling like a "taker."  I feel like because I have a big family, I really, REALLY have to have it all together.  And honestly, many of the very people who have been taking care of us since our girls came home are people we've not known more than a few months.  What a blessing they have been.

I'll update you all on how the pre-op goes tomorrow.  Please be praying that she's cleared for surgery.  And in the meantime I'll be doing laundry and scrubbing toilets and soaking up time with each of my precious little ones.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Of ornaments and redemption

SO excited to hang a shiny red ornament on the Christmas tree.  For the first time ever.

Finding just the right spot.

Concentrating, because this is serious business.

Pure joy.  So, so proud.  Be still my mama heart.

Just days before her open heart surgery, Mekdes hung her first ornament and took part in the general chaos that is Heldt-family-decorating-for-Christmas. 

This is going to be an amazingly incredible, emotional holiday season for us.  Heart surgery on December 2nd, at least a week in the hospital, then home to recover and enjoy what is left of December as we anticipate and reflect on the coming of Jesus.

Redemption, come into the world.

Especially real this year because some of that beautiful redemption is actually living at my house.

And I got a glimpse of it when Mekdes hung her first ornament.

I am humbled.

Monday, November 28, 2011

A Happy Thanksgiving

There's something so beautiful about all of the many firsts for an adopted child who's recently joined your family.

This was of course Mekdes' and Tigist's first Thanksgiving.

Our family (minus me, since I was still getting over a stomach virus) started the day off by going to Mass, then in the afternoon we all headed down to my brother-in-law and sister-in-law's home for Thanksgiving dinner.  Kevin's parents were there too.  So nice to be with family!

On a personal note, there are two things in particular--among my many, many blessings--that I found myself thankful for this year. 

One of them is of course the fact that Tigist and Mekdes are HOME.  With us.  They are a delight in every possible way, and it's as if they've always been here.  I continue to be in awe of their transition.  Oh the joy they bring to each of our hearts!

The second thing I am grateful for is Christ and His Church.  Since being received into the Catholic Church a month ago or so, I have been continually amazed and humbled by the way God has worked in our lives through the Sacrament and through His body here on earth.  How sweet it it is to receive the Eucharist each week, and how blessed we are by the many friends God has brought our way.  How sweet it is to be home.

I hope you had a blessed Thanksgiving as well!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Journey to Rome: How I fell in love with Mary (part II)

A portrait of Mary in our hotel room.  Rome, 2011.

Well, buckle up folks.  Because today I'm sharing how exactly I came to terms with some of the harder Marian dogmas and doctrines of the Catholic faith.  If there's anything about Catholicism that makes Protestants want to run far, far away, it's Mary.

And, I kind of get that. 

Quite frankly, Mary was one of my "hang-ups" with the Catholic Church for some time--even after educating myself on what the Church actually teaches (and doesn't teach) about Mary the mother of God.  It was all very new for me, and I struggled to understand why any of it mattered, and how Mary's place in the Church fit with the worship of Jesus.  Was it idolatry?  What was the point of praying to Mary when I could just, you know, pray directly to God?

But I'd also come to believe that the Catholic Church is true.  And the fact is that the deposit of faith (the Bible + Tradition), handed down by the Apostles, includes ideas like the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption.  So I kept reading, and kept praying.  I read what the early Church fathers and Christians wrote about Mary.  I read the Bible.  I read works by various apologists, both Catholic and Protestant.  I read statements by the Reformers.  I even read a book about the Vatican-approved Marian apparition in Rwanda, Our Lady of Kibeho

I was not an easy sell.  :)

But...I kept coming back to the idea that Jesus has given us the Church, and from very early on, well, the Church venerated Mary.  Not to mention, Mary-as-the-new-Eve (Paul of course tells us that Jesus was the new Adam) is incredibly compelling from a theological perspective.

Whatever you believe, God used Mary to play a significant role in salvation history: to carry and birth and raise our Savior--and through giving birth to Jesus, she essentially gave birth to the Church.  She said yes to God when Eve said no.  She is a shining example of sacrifice.  She is the mother of my Lord, and how blessed we are to have her for our mother as well.

So as Catholics, we venerate (or honor) Mary, which is not the same as "worshipping" her the way we would God the Father, or Jesus the Son.  (That has never been taught by the Church, ever.)  And we honor her because Jesus honored her.  Rather than taking honor away from Jesus, Mary points us toward Him.

The Catholic Church teaches that when Jesus placed Mary in John's care, as He was dying on the cross, He was ultimately giving her to the Church, as a mother.  (John 19:25-27.)  So we believe that she is the loving mother of all Christians.  And just like we hang family photos in our homes, we oftentimes also have artwork depicting the Holy Family.  We like us some statues for the same reason.  And we believe in the Communion of Saints and so believe that Mary prays and intercedes for us.  Which is all kinds of awesome, no?

When Catholics pray to Mary, they are asking her to pray to God for them--just like sometimes we ask our friends or religious leaders or coworkers to pray for us.  The more prayers on my behalf, the better.  The more prayers on my behalf spoken by Jesus' mother, the better.

And yes, all of this is based on the Catholic understanding of scripture (both Old and New Testaments), as well as a historical and traditional understanding of early Church history.

I want you to check out this fascinating and beautiful video.  The symbology is pretty astounding--an 11 minutes well spent.  :)

I am honestly falling more and more in love with Mary the mother of Jesus.  I love knowing that she prays for me, and for the Church, and that she knows what it is to be a mama.  When I start to wonder if God is asking too much of me...I think of her and how she said yes to Him.  When my children are hurting or suffering...I think of her and how she watched her beloved son die unjustly on a cross.  And I love that God uses the stuff of this earth--bread, wine, humanity, water, a virgin from Nazareth--to do His supernatural, Heavenly bidding.  What an incredible miracle and mystery. 

If you're interested, I highly recommend Scott Hahn's Hail, Holy Queen.  He writes in a super engaging way, it's not a long read, and hey, he used to be a Protestant.  :)

I'm so very grateful and humbled that God has brought me to accept--and celebrate!--the Catholic Church's position on Mary.  I do understand that it's difficult at best (and offensive at worst) for many Protestants.  But when I sit at Mass each Sunday, as I pray to Jesus and prepare to receive Him in the Eucharist, I love to look upon the statue of the Blessed Virgin.  And when I do, I love to think about the amazing gift she gave the world when she simply said yes to her God. 

May I have the grace to do the same.

{Part I of my journey from Protestantism to Catholicism can be found here.}

Monday, November 21, 2011

Update on my daughter's heart

Mekdes rocking out at a Stephen Curtis Chapman concert.

On December 2nd, my five-year-old daughter Mekdes is having open heart surgery.

It hasn't really sunken in yet.  I do know I'm not looking forward to it.  But I'll be glad to get it done. 

The cardiologist said we could have until summertime, but it's just too hard to wait that long with something so huge hanging over our heads.  Plus, we've already hit our max for the year with insurance (funny how two heart surgeries will do that for you) so from a financial perspective, it makes sense to have it done now.

The surgery itself is four hours long, and we're looking at a 7-10 day hospital stay, provided there are no complications.  That's going to be a lot of juggling for us, but we'll make it work. 

Without this particular surgery, my daughter would have a very short life.  She's extremely blessed as it is that she has not incurred any serious heart damage yet, and that would eventually change.  Scary stuff.  So we're of course really hoping that the surgeon is successful in fixing her defect, since it's a pretty big deal.

I've been thinking a lot about Mekdes' birth mom and how, when we met her, she was adamant about two things:

She wanted to know if we were Christians, and wept with relief when we said yes, and

She wanted her daughter to get the medical help she needed so that she could live a good life.

This woman of course had no clue that her daughter really was looking at a greatly-shortened lifespan due to the heart defect she was living with.  Oh how I wish I was able to tell her about Mekdes' surgeries and about how we're taking care of her.  I wish I could tell her about how our priest prayed over Mekdes and about how all of our friends have supported us with prayers, meals, and love. 

Mekdes' pre-op is on Thursday, December 1st, and then she'll be admitted the next day for surgery.  And in the meantime it's homeschooling and Thanksgiving and houseguests and putting up the Christmas tree and Anna's dance performance.  Life marching on.  Even amidst open heart surgery.  

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Journey to Rome: an overview (part I)

Mary and me, and Michelangelo's Pieta, in Rome.  April 2011.

As promised, I am (finally) opening up about why my husband and I walked away from a combined 61 years of Protestant Christianity...to join the Catholic Church.

Things like this aren't easy to explain, in part because a faith journey can be an intensely personal experience, and also because in our case (like so many) it is multi-faceted and messy.  A lot of you won't be able to relate, and that's okay. 

I personally come from a long line of Catholics and former-Catholics.  (My maiden name is Perruzzi.  It makes sense.)  My formerly-Lutheran husband does not.  (His last name is Heldt.  It makes sense.)  And I've discovered that no matter what your background, there is a lot of widespread misinformation about Catholicism.  While I am happy to share the truth, I'm not an apologist and won't attempt to correct every single misconception or argue with you about the Immaculate Conception.  I have friends much better suited for that sort of thing.  I on the other hand will humbly attempt to share my story.  (But if you have questions and you ask nicely, I'll do my best to answer them!  :)  )

Roughly four years ago, I read a book by Thomas Howard that would (unbenownst to me) set my conversion in motion.  It was called Evangelical is Not Enough: Worship of God Through Liturgy and Sacrament.  The title may sound inflammatory and not like anything a lifelong Evangelical Christian would ever read, but the author is Elisabeth Elliott's brother (and who doesn't love Elisabeth Elliott?), and I wanted to learn more about the Sacraments.  I'd always belonged to non-denominational churches that taught that baptism and communion were merely symbols, even though most Christians around the world say otherwise.  And my husband used to be a Lutheran and we had a lot of theological conversations about those things.   

Howard's book (which is EXCELLENT), along with much conversation and prayer and a lot of Bible study, brought me to a point where I did believe in the Sacraments as such.  I felt convicted that we ought to be a part of a liturgical church that observed the Sacraments and was solidly embedded in the historical Christian faith.  (My husband felt the same, and always had, really.)  We knew though that we'd be moving shortly so we remained at our non-denominational church in the meantime.

Allow me to break here and say that my ten years at Grace Church were blessed and fruitful.  Grace was an anchor in my life when I came to college and was seeking the Lord in great earnest.  Many faithful, amazing people crossed my path there--people committed to loving and living like Jesus.  I gained a greater understanding of the Bible and of my faith.  The Gospel and Word of God were the standard.  I met  my husband there.  Thus, I am ever grateful for how God worked in my life during my time at Grace.

I will also say that my prior eighteen years at Creston Community Church were quite wonderful as well.  I never knew a day where I didn't know the love of Jesus.  My childhood church involvement set an excellent foundation for the rest of my life, and I learned how to follow God and work out my faith in this little country church.  Again, nothing but gratitude.

But when we moved to Denver, we found a Reformed Protestant church to attend downtown (PCA at the time, though it soon switched to the RCA denomination.)  Considering my own background, it may as well have been Catholic--I felt clumsy at first because it was all very new to me.  But, I loved it.  Lots of liturgy.  Communion each week.  My children were all baptized shortly after Mary was born.  Our time there (three years, as it turns out) was wonderful as well.  We made a few good friends and I fell in love with historical Christianity and with communion-as-a-Sacrament.  While I don't think we ever quite "fit" in certain ways, we didn't really anticipate leaving, at least not anytime soon.

In fact, we probably would have been content remaining in Protestant Reformed circles, never giving Catholicism a second thought, were it not for the other piece of the story.

You see, shortly after we'd moved to Denver, I became interested in the historic Christian teaching on, well, contraception.  Random, I know.  We'd been convicted for years about this issue, and I wanted once and for all to understand what Christians have believed about this throughout the ages.  And I get that most people don't really care.  Most people don't see what birth control has to do with a guy who died on a Roman cross two thousand years ago.  It's a non-essential in Protestantism.  And I wanted to know why, because it sure seemed to me that something as fundamental as the playing out of our sexuality, something that affects pretty much every single part of our lives, should matter to the God who created us, who "made them man and woman".

The truth is that I was shocked at what I found.  Turns out it wasn't always a non-essential.  In fact, the Protestant faith was united with Catholics on this matter for centuries, up until the 1930s or so, when the Anglican Church changed its position (allowing for contraception in "some" cases).  The vast majority of Protestant groups eventually followed, the pill came along in the 1960s, and the rest is history.

Naturally I now wanted to know why exactly Catholics continue to teach against the use of contraception.

Again, I was shocked.  The Roman Catholic Church's teachings on marriage, children, vocation, and personhood were the most profound, simplistic, beautiful, and cohesive things I'd read on the subject.  Ever.  And they actually made sense.  Both Kevin and I dug in, anxious to learn more.  We read things like Covenanted Happiness, books on Theology of the Body, writings from John Paul II, and work by Kimberly Hahn and Christopher West.  It seemed one could never fully mine the depths of wisdom pouring from the Church on these issues.  It seriously felt as if we'd struck gold.  No joke.

If people asked, I found myself telling them we followed the Catholic Church's teachings on marriage and contraception.

Which was weird, because we weren't Catholic.  :)

But we wholeheartedly believed that this historic position, formerly held by Protestant Christians as well, was true.

It was around this time that I became intrigued to discover that there were actually lots of people converting from Protestantism to Catholicism.  People like Thomas Howard, Francis Beckwith, and Scott Hahn.  And did you know that Rich Mullins was about to join the Catholic Church when he died?  Or that Elisabeth Elliott is a regular guest and speaker at various Catholic universities, and has taken some flack from the Protestant community on account of this?

We started to wonder what else the Catholic Church said and stood for, if they were the only group standing firm on the issue of contraception and if so many well-respected Christians were compelled enough to convert.

The theology was fascinating.  We quickly gained an IMMENSE respect and appreciation for the Roman Catholic faith, even though we thought we'd NEVER be able to become card-carrying members...thanks to those few pesky issues like Mary and the infallibility of the Pope.

Still we kept reading.  And, guess what, there are reasons (both rooted in the Bible and in Tradition) for those more controversial doctrines.  They were actually not as scary as Jack Chick and Loraine Boettner would have wanted us to believe.

And we began to see that so very much of the divide between Catholics and Protestants comes down to one word: authority.

How does the Holy Spirit work?  Why are so many earnest, prayerful and solid believers divided over such significant issues?  Why does the Bible refer to the Church as "the pillar and foundation of the truth"?  What are we supposed to make of Peter receiving the keys to the kingdom of Heaven?  Why can no one agree on what the Church is supposed to look like today?

What on EARTH do we do with passages like John 6?

Basically we started wondering, does authority ultimately rest with each individual person and their private interpretation of the Bible, or is there more to it?

And as the misconceptions about Catholicism were replaced with knowledge about what they actually believe (and why), and as we pondered all of the above questions, we eventually arrived at the surprising and humbling conclusion that authority ought to rest with Christ's Church.  The one established by Jesus, founded upon Peter, and carried forward by the faithful down through the ages.  Just like Jesus promised.

Initially, we were, um, somewhat terrified by this conclusion.  What would people say?  How would we leave our church?  So we told ourselves that we'd just be secret Catholics-at-heart for awhile, that there was no need to do anything rash.  But God wasn't content with that and brought us to the place where we had to acknowledge that if we truly believed this was Christ's Church, why would we deliberately spend another moment outside of it and the graces therein? 

So in August, we began attending a local parish.

In September, we formally announced that we were leaving our Protestant faith community of the past three-plus years. 

And in October, we came into full communion with the Catholic Church.

We received the Eucharist for the first time.

We have been blessed beyond anything we could have imagined.

Now before someone has a bunch of Chick Tracts anonymously delivered to my house, allow me to say that we've explored all of these issues from both sides--devil's advocate and all that.  This was not an immediate or purely emotion-based conversion.  It took four years and was pretty difficult in many ways.  My husband worked in a Christian bookstore in college where the only books touching on Catholicism were written by Protestants--and shelved in the "Cults" section.  (He didn't put them there though, just so we're clear.  :)  )  I own a John MacArthur study Bible that has its own interpretation of John 6.  People can go back and forth all day arguing the meaning of scripture, and that's why it eventually always comes down to authority: who do you believe?  So we are well aware of the counter-points, and of the theology reflected in Protestantism.  Still, we chose the Catholic Church--or rather, She chose us.

There is really so much more that I want to share. The dear people we've met on the journey, the books and blogs we've poured over, how Kevin and I have wrestled with these things together and yet sometimes reached different conclusions at different times, the many blessings and also the challenges.  I'll do that soon. 

But in the meantime, here is my feeble introductory explanation of how--and why--we've "gone all in" with Rome.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Surgeries and blessings

Well, we made it.  :) 

Surgery day started early...I got up at 4:30 am, got ready, and packed up our overnight bag, my laptop, a bunch of books, and of course my girlies.

Kevin stayed home with our other kids until lunchtime, when he took them to a dear friend's house so he could meet me at the hospital.

We got to Denver Children's Hospital at 6 am, checked in, and headed up to cardiac pre-op.  Here are Mekdes and Tigist in the wagon during check-in.  Happy as clams.  Just like always.

Tigist's procedure was first.  Could she be any cuter in her hospital gown?! 

I met the anaesthesiologist who, it turns out, lived in Ethiopia and worked at the Black Lion Hospital for some number of years.  Crazy.  And Tigist's nurse's in-laws were missionaries in Ethiopia.

When it was time for surgery, they had me suit up in all the gear, and carry my dear baby into the room.  I laid her down on the operating table, stood with her while they put her under, and then they had me give her a final kiss and leave the room.

I nearly bawled.  It was awful.  Flooded with emotion and "what if"'s and love for my dear, beautiful Tigist.  But I kept it together.  (Because when I cry, it's always the ugly cry.  Always.  And I knew I'd never be able to stop.) 

I came back to find Mekdes napping.  In a chair.  Sister having heart surgery?  Right before you go in for heart surgery?  No big deal.  May as well take a snooze.

Eventually it was time to start her pre-op.  She made the gown look good too.  :)

And before I knew it, someone came and told me that Tigist was all done.

That things had gone well.

That her heart was fixed

Again, me on the brink of bursting into tears.

Something so impossible in Ethiopia, but so very important for my daughter, healed in the span of an hour and a half or so.

Of course then it was time to take Mekdes in for her procedure.  Another heart-wrenching kiss goodbye.

I spent the duration of Mekdes' surgery with Tigist in recovery.  (This is what you do when you have two kids having heart procedures on the same day, back-to-back.)  Who was cute as could be and wanted NOTHING to do with having to lay flat on her back for four hours.  The girl wanted to play.  I did my best to keep her distracted with Baby Einstein and multiple slushies and some pudding.

I also did a lot of praying for and thinking about Mekdes.  Unlike Tigist's, her procedure was just diagnostic.  Because she needs open heart surgery to fix her defect.  And she's lived way too long with it, and it's not uncommon to develop lasting, serious heart damage when that happens.  The surgeon needed to see if her body can even withstand open heart surgery, if her heart is even operable.

Those are pretty high stakes.  Because we'd been told that without open heart surgery, her lifespan will be cut drastically short by eventual heart failure.  NOT something a parent wants to hear.  Ever.

So, yeah, I was pretty anxious the entire time she was in there.  What would they find? 

But then the surgeon came out. 

Told me she did great.

She has literally NO HEART DAMAGE.

She is an EXCELLENT CANDIDATE for open heart surgery.

And she apparently USED to have a hole in another part of her heart.  But at some point it closed on its own. 

Had it not, her heart would have been inoperable.

Meaning a much shortened lifespan.  But that hole healed, so now she can have the surgery she so desperately needs. 

Just like her first mama would have wanted her to have.

Here she is sleeping in recovery.  When she woke up, she was crying inconsolably from the drugs.  So, so sad.

I'm sure any parent whose child has ever had serious surgery knows what I mean when I say I wanted to grab the surgeon and give him a huge hug while jumping up and down and cheering and crying, all at once.  I didn't, but I wanted to.  God used him to give my babies another shot at life.  I'll always be grateful for Dr. Darst and his care and concern for my daughters.

Because things could not have gone better than they did.  They went so well, in fact, that we were discharged that afternoon and didn't even have to spend the night!  (Guess I didn't need all my books afterall.  :)  )

And I am convinced, beyond any doubt, that God worked miracles through the Sacrament they received Thursday night, and through all the prayers of friends and family.  My parish homeschool group prayed a novena for my daughters in the days leading up to the surgeries, and that morning they all prayed the Divine Mercy Chaplet together, for my girls.  Friends dedicated their Mass intentions to us.  I am beyond grateful, and beyond touched.  More than you can imagine.

God has been so extremely faithful to our family throughout all of this.  And NOT simply because we had a good outcome.  He has lovingly cared for us through His Church and through our many wonderful friends.  In a more general sense, I feel as if God has been working overtime in my life this past month and a half or so, breaking me down and building me up.  That is, ultimately, a good thing, even if the circumstances are hard.  Maybe especially because the circumstances are hard.

So thank you, thank you, thank you for everything!!!  Mekdes and Tigist are doing great, and I'll be sure to let you know when we get the (deep breath) open heart surgery scheduled.

Here they are on Friday night, home after their procedures, smiling and playing before bedtime.  Tigist with her healed heart, and Mekdes with the potential for a long life up ahead.  Oh how blessed we are!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Surgery day!

Today is the day.

My daughters Mekdes and Tigist are having heart surgery.

In fact, as you read this, at least one of the procedures has already begun.

I'm writing this the night before, though.  (Isn't Blogger and its ability to schedule posts so fancy?  It's like time-travel.  Sort of.  :)  ) 

Right now my mind is swirling and my emotions are all over the place and I just feel so very vulnerable and small.

I'm thinking about how life is fragile and ever so precious.

I'm thinking about how there is so much more to life than meets the eye, than what we see here on earth.  So.much.more.

I'm thinking about redemption and suffering and the big-ness of my daughters' stories.  And about how their stories have collided with mine, and have become mine.  It's kind of funny how God works.  He joins hearts and brings beauty from ashes and shows up in the most unexpected of places and circumstances.

As a child or young adult I never dreamed that TWO of my children would one day be undergoing heart surgery.  Nope, never crossed my mind.  I never imagined I'd be spending a lot of my time at a children's hospital while a surgeon attempted to repair my daughters' congenital heart defects.  Of course, most people probably don't anticipate facing those sorts of decisions and trials.  If it's not part of your life experience, you just don't think about it.  You think life will go as planned.

But then you grow up and you discover that things don't go the way you thought.  Pretty much ever.

And I have to be honest and say that my life has actually far surpassed any of my expectations.  God has done wonderful, beautiful things and no day has been wasted, not one.  And today is the same.  I don't know how things will go, how my daughters will do, if Tigist's defects will be fixed or if Mekdes will be a good candidate for open heart surgery.  But God is in today, just like He was in yesterday.  That I know.  I also know that it is the unseen that matters most of all, and that God is working in ways I don't even understand yet.

Still I'm afraid, and I think that is normal. 

I feel the weight of responsibility, and it's heavy. 

I feel the weight of the procedures, and the risks involved. 

I feel the weight of open heart surgery looming in the distance. 

I feel the weight of meeting my daughters' respective birth mothers, and of my promises to them that I would love their girls and make sure they got the medical assistance that they needed.  I can see their eyes and tears as if it was yesterday.  I want to do right by my daughters, and by the women who gave them life.  It's big stuff.

However things go tomorrow, I have faith in God's provision for my little girls.  Their very lives are a testament to that.  Two children with multiple heart defects (related to the fact that they were born with Down syndrome), born into poverty in a developing country, eventually relinquished by their mothers, spending roughly two years in an orphanage waiting and waiting for a family to come and get them. 

They are survivors.

And God is faithful.

So we begin to write the next chapter of their story today--them and the surgeon in the Cath Lab and me in the waiting room.  I don't know the future or the plans God ultimately has for our family, but He is strong and perfect in our weakness.

Last night, our daughters received the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick in preparation for today.  It was just our family (all nine of us), our friend Troy (the girls' godfather), and Father Daniel (our priest).  What a precious time.  My heart felt so encouraged and I was incredibly blessed by the Sacrament itself and by the prayers and the support shown to our family.  I felt truly strengthened. 

And the crazy thing was, as soon as we finished, Tigist got into the crawling position...for the first time ever.  No joke.  She has never been able to do this, and her therapists were really hoping that eventually she could.  I honestly think God has a pretty great sense of humor...apparently, who needs a physical therapist when you have the Sacraments?  :)

I will do my best to update on Facebook and Twitter throughout the day.  Barring any complications, each procedure should only be 2-3 hours or so.  The same surgeon is performing both.  (And of course it's always possible that the surgeries may need to be rescheduled due to random health issues, but I'm praying that's not the case.)  I'll arrive at the hospital with the girls at 6 am and Kevin will be home with our other kids until lunchtime or so, when he'll probably drop them off with a dear friend and meet me at the hospital.

Today's a big day for Tigist and Mekdes. 

And so I'll close by saying I'm so very grateful for my dear, sweet, brave little girls, for those near and far who are journeying with us, and for the hope we have in Jesus.


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