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Echoes Blog

Children as Visible Citizens

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I had the privilege of attending a week long Educator Study Tour to Reggio Emila, Italy in May with 11 other Pinnacle Presbyterian Preschool teachers and staff.  We joined 150 other educators from a 5 State Collaborative group that have been working together for the past 10 years. 

Reggio Emilia is a town of 170,000 inhabitants located in northern Italy. In 1991, Newsweek named Reggio Emilia’s municipally-operated infant/toddler centers and preschools among the 10 best educational programs in the world.

Since that time, worldwide interest in the unique and provocative experiences of children, families and teachers who live a daily life in these schools has exploded. People from many countries have visited Reggio Emilia to study how they design schools to be places where learning, teaching, childhood, community, and family participation are celebrated.

When you visit Reggio Emilia, it becomes clear that children are almost always present in the public sphere. Babies in arms at public meetings, children biking through piazzas, teenagers sitting in groups in the park.

The belief that children have a right to be seen and heard is reflected in the overall feel of the city. Hard to know which came first, but you might imagine that as a generation of individuals, who were once children that attended Reggio’s world-renowned infant/toddler centers and preschools, became parents themselves, they held without question the expectation of high-quality, joyful, exciting, loving, thoughtful, provocative, curiosity-stimulating, socially dynamic early education environments. In this way, parents are a sort of guarantor of high quality in their children’s education and care.

I noticed that the teachers in Reggio often asked the children questions beginning with the specific phrase of “In your opinion, ….” To me, that distinctly displays a respectfulness toward the children and lets the children know that their ideas matter. By using this specific phrasing of our language toward the children I feel we can improve upon how we speak to them and how we encourage ideas from the children through our questions.

In Reggio Emilia, adults explore topics like human rights alongside the youngest of children who, when seen and heard as fellow citizens, offer provocative and fresh ideas about ideas that grown-ups sometimes mistakenly imagine they have already figured out.

This respect for human rights seems woven into the fabric of the city. It is a community that has welcomed immigrants, granting them the same rights to early education that all the citizens of Reggio have traditionally been privileged to enjoy for decades. They speak often of context in Reggio, and the context of place is very important. From their viewpoint, a child is growing up in a specific corner of the world, which is unlike any other corner of the world. Where you are matters. A key early experience of childhood, and an experience that extends throughout the lifespan, is the ongoing effort to create a sense of belonging. This effort has especially strong implications for children’s development, including their sense of identity, their competence as a communicator of ideas, their willing ability to problem solve, and on and on.

For some educators (and, increasingly, parents), encountering this educational philosophy is almost life-changing. The potential of education is evident in Reggio Emilia, and the values that are living and breathing there refresh teachers who strive to build similar schools in their own communities. The schools of Reggio Emilia are built on relationships, on respect, on the lifelong desire to learn and an almost worshipful respect for curiosity and beauty and joyful interaction.

As I reflect on our Study Tour, I am left with many questions and thoughts as we move forward - What is the kind of school that we strive to be? What values do we want to see expressed in our choices and our ways of being together? What do we want children to learn from us about learning, and what do we want to learn from them?  

This quote by Reggio educator, Carlina Rinaldi will be our guiding voice as we “unpack” our experience from our Study Tour, “From the beginning, children demonstrate that they have a voice, know how to listen and want to be listened to by others”.

When Refuse Becomes Renewal

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By Carol Minchew | Pinnacle Spiritual Arts Committee

The following is written by Pinnacle member, Carol Minchew, and shared with her permission from dvhealing.com. Carol Minchew has been a leading light behind our spiritual arts program. She has also been involved for many years in support of persons who have experienced domestic violence. She recently wrote a blog post for victims of domestic abuse that brings together her passions in response to our most recent arts display, “Caring for Creation.”

“Sometimes, one must dig deep into the rubble of what was in order to build a strong and beautiful foundation for what will be”  ~ Carol Minchew

In a recent ecological liturgical art installation, which I facilitated; beauty was born from discarded water bottles pulled from trash bins. When I contemplate my friend, Lynne’s, beautiful photo of the installation, spring sunlight bounces joyfully off of what once was essentially trash—rubble, refuse has found rejuvenating renewal.  It is spring—the bird sings “Hope!”

What a lovely metaphor for domestic violence healing this becomes. Today, let us explore how someone moving from an abusive situation might move through the beginning stages of healing. This is an extreme simplification of the path that brought me to healing, but it might be a place for you to start your own, very personal journey. Let’s gently walk through it together.

But first, let us visualize the same example of when refuse or trash becomes renewal as it occurs in nature. A flower seed, surrounded by a protective husk or shell, has within itself a perfect blueprint—it is complete with everything it needs to grow into the blooming, flourishing plant it was meant to be. Yet in order that this amazing transition may begin, the seed and its perfect blueprint (DNA) must be enveloped in the earth. The soil that evolved from the refuse of nature is made up of decaying plant life, eroded boulders become sand, insects, and animals return to the earth at the end of their life cycle—and from this natural composted rubble and rock evolves the very nutrients necessary for new life to flourish and grow. The Creator partners with the seed to provide the other elements—sun and rain.

And so it is with each precious human, in order that we might grow and flourish, we must push up through the difficult rubble and refuse of past experience in order that we might find the light and absorb the truth and wisdom that pushing through “the mess of it all” can reveal to us. It is only by allowing our protective hard shell (husk) to break open to experience the “hardships of pushing through” that true life can begin. It is a hard thing this process of examining the harshness of our past but it is by the grace of the Creator who gives us strength and resilience to move upward that we can then grow and flourish.

No one enjoys the the pain of reliving heartache, but, for me, taking a hard look at what had not been working for me in my life, (my strengths, as well as my less desirable traits,) was exactly what was needed to allow the exploratory tendrils of new growth to take root, find light and eventually to flourish. A journal may help you through this process. It was invaluable for me.

I send you love and blessings for new growth.

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As we begin our summer break I have been thinking about my summer sewing projects.  There is always a list of projects waiting for those too hot summer days when I can’t go anywhere else but my air conditioned sewing room.  For those of you who are sewers, knitters or do cross stitch you know why these days are special.  For those who don’t have the pleasure of the gift of stitches the practice is multipurpose.

Part of sewing is about the making of the item.  Carefully choosing something that we love or that the receiver will love. Most importantly it is about the practice of making the item. 

What was entwined in each stitch are the people and conversations about life and love, grief and fears, dreams and hopes we have long the way.  The act of stitching became the act of practicing resurrection.

Each time I pick up a needle and thread I think about Dorcas.  She was the first and only named female disciple of Jesus (Acts 9) and my soul stitcher. I imagine that widows would come and sit with her while she stitched, sometimes bringing their own cloth to learn the art of sewing.  And as a bolt of fabric was cut into pieces, carefully sewn together, the item was gifted not to the person who had everything already but to the one who had the least.  She had changed the lives of many in that community and now what?

Acts 9 is about her death and how they called Peter to support them as they grieved and shared stories about Dorcas.  But what is interesting about the passage is what Peter does when he arrives.  After listening for a while he asks everyone to leave and says to Dorcas’ dead body, “Get up!”

I think about these words often.  “Get up!”  Sometimes I say them to myself when I am feeling lazy but Peter had no reason to say, “get up!” to Dorcas.  She had done great work, died and someone else would come after her and step in where she left off bringing new ministries and gifts.  I can’t seem to figure out why Peter wanted to resurrect her?

I wonder if it is because the community had become so focused on the work and ministry of Dorcas, they had forgotten about the work of God’s hand.  Dorcas’ resurrection is not just about Dorcas, but about recognizing God’s work in each of the women Dorcas touched. 

We are all God’s seamstresses in our world today.  Living stitch by stitch. Sometimes we get focused on the big picture and only see the really hard things that keep touching our tapestry…the biggest ones are change, fear and loss. In these moments our stitches are crooked, lopsided and seem to be going nowhere.

But if the lines were always straight and the spacing perfect then we would think everything was perfect and it’s not.  It’s not perfect when bad things happen to good people.  It’s not perfect when children die or when there is no safe space anymore.  It isn’t perfect when people go home depressed, lonely and lost.  It isn’t perfect when life seems to be unraveling at the seams. 

Only God can look at the whole picture and see how our stitches fit into the tapestry. Only God can make the wiggles, turns and zigzags into resurrection moments. Ann Lemont says in her newest book Stitches, “Every time we choose the good action or response, the decent, the valuable, it builds, incrementally, to renewal, resurrection, the place of newness, freedom, justice. The equation is: life, death, resurrection, hope.” 

We live into the resurrection moments stitch by stitch…confident that God will be resurrected in even the most difficult circumstances.  And when we get caught up in the struggle, take a moment to command the experience or event to “get up!”  Look at it from a different perspective to see what God might be creating in the midst of it. So I encourage you in the weeks ahead to be bold enough to say “Get up!” to events, experiences and places that don’t make sense, are frustrating or we just can’t figure out what God is doing. I promise you God is always doing something.

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“Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.” ~ Ecclesiastes

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” ~ W. B. Yeats

“Trust and Obey.” ~ hymn, John H. Sammis in 1887

Sometimes life feels like one continuous wheel of futility. What we might want in such times is that word of hope…no matter how fleeting it may seem…that helps us find a sense of purpose in the midst of the world’s vanity…the world’s lack of diplomacy. For me, I want the story of scripture to invade my life and offer me a glimmer of what God is up to. “Tell those wonderful words of life, whisper them over again to me.” Tell me that, though the moral arc of the universe is long, it bends toward justice, toward the light, toward the good, toward reconciliation, faith, hope, and love. Tell me that, though I feel the deprivation of light in this world, there is a flame that shines in the darkness still. Declare that the Divine Diplomacy includes a grand design, and “that this Plan is wrapped in the folds of my Being, even as the oak is wrapped in the acorn and the rose is wrapped in the bud…that this Plan is permanent, indestructible and perfect” [The Divine Plan, Glenn Clark]. Hold my hand through that long, dark night, and sing me to heaven, that I may grasp onto something, even if that something is but the crumbs that fall from the Master’s table. I want to grasp onto something. . . tangible.

The Divine Design rarely looks neat and orderly from our perspective, for “now we see through a glass darkly.“ [1 Cor 13] The world saw Jesus’ crucifixion as a failure of God’s diplomatic mission to reconcile all humanity, and yet those three interminable dark days of the tomb have become for us a living metaphor of existing between the times, awaiting resurrection, awaiting reconciliation, awaiting restoration, awaiting redemption.  And along the way, we do experience moments of the in-breaking and overarching web of God’s design; we catch glimpses, not of a hidden god, of a mechanistic charlatan behind a curtain, manipulating circumstances in haphazard ways. Rather, like Jesus who saw the heaven’s ripped open, the Spirit descending like a dove, we see the Divine at work in countless acts of mercy and grace and power. The Divine Design unfolds with a neatness and orderliness that can only be understood, only grasped, by the power and grace of God’s Spirit. 

Sometimes we wait for seasons and seasons to see the unfolding moral arc. Sometimes we wait generations and centuries. Sometimes the Divine Diplomacy simply says, “No. Not now. Not ever.” Sometimes we must bide God’s “no” and have to trust that the web is bigger than we can understand. Sometimes, we live long enough and faithfully enough to be able to see the world of God’s design intersect with our world, rearrange the chaotic birth-pangs of the kingdom, and we proclaim, “God’s plan, God’s Spirit, God’s reconciling, righteous reign has gone before us. Trust and obey. Have faith. Whisper words of hope in the darkness, and cling to the hands of the family members who walk this weary road with you. Look for the ways that God’s Way goes forth in directions you never imagined. Do what you can to provide safe harbor for other wayfarers. And keep the home fires burning. For God’s plan is wrapped in the folds of your being as the oak is within the acorn. And you are wrapped up in the fabric of God’s design…a coat of many colors, a shroud of consolation, and a cape of reconciliation. Come to the welcome table and let God put on you his finest robe. You are clothed in Christ, the host at this great feast.” So that, season after season, we can proclaim along with the psalmist, “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.”

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Jean Vanier died last week. 

His story is worth telling, and his words worth taking to heart.  He was born in 1928 to Canadian diplomats in Europe.  His family fled Paris just before Nazi occupation, and he spent much of the war as a young student in the British Naval Academy.  He was profoundly moved when he and his mother went to assist survivors of the Nazi concentration camps. 

He took a Royal Navy commission, which he left in 1950 to pursue a spiritual calling.  He considered priesthood, but decided on an academic career, which included a doctorate on Aristotelian ethics and a budding teaching career.  But then, in 1964, through friendship with a French priest he became aware of the plight of thousands of people institutionalized with intellectual disabilities.  He visited an institution and befriended two men, who he invited to leave the hospital and live with him in a house north of Paris.  He soon discovered that he was not doing something for them, but that they were making a home together.  That led to an idea, which led to the first L'Arche community, where people with disabilities live with the people who care for them on as close to a one-to-one ratio as possible. This was a radical approach then, and still is.  And it has changed the world.  There are now around 150 such communities in nearly 140 countries.  Seventeen in the U.S.  L'Arche means "The Ark," taken from Noah's Ark.

Vanier wrote 30 books, began organizations offering retreats and workshops designed to open people's hearts.  He lived in the original L'Arche community until his death.

Vanier's most popular book is simply called, Becoming Human.  

Find it.  Read it. 

In Becoming Human, Jean Vanier says that to be human is not to be autonomous and productive, but to be fragile and vulnerable to others.  He describes five "principles" that helped him understand this (with quotes from the book).

One: All humans are sacred . . . and each of us needs help to become all that we might be.

Two: Our world and our lives are in the process of evolving. This is a part of life, for good and ill.  We change. Life changes. We want to encourage the flow of life and growth.

It is a question of loving all the essential values of the past and reflecting on how they are to be lived in the new. These values include openness, love, wholeness, unity, peace, the human potential for healing and redemption, and, most important, the necessity of forgiveness.

Three: "Maturity comes through working with others, through dialogue, and through a sense of belonging and a searching together."  We need enough security to embrace the insecurity we need to grow.   

Four: Humans need to be encouraged to make choices, and to become responsible for their own lives and for the lives of others.  We need to be encouraged to . . ."break out of the shell of self-centeredness and out of our defense mechanisms, which are as oppressive to others as they are to ourselves. . . .We need to freely risk life in order to give of ourselves." 

Five: In order to make those kinds of choices, we need to reflect and to seek truth and meaning.

To be human means to remain connected to our humanness and to reality. It means to abandon the loneliness of being closed up in illusions, dreams, and ideologies, frightened of reality, and to choose to move towards connectedness. To be human is to accept ourselves just as we are, with our own history, and to accept others as they are. To be human means to accept history as it is and to work, without fear, towards greater openness, greater understanding, and a greater love of others. To be human is not to be crushed by reality, or to be angry about it or to try to hammer it into what we think it is or should be, but to commit ourselves as individuals, and as a species, to an evolution that will be for the good of all.

Thank you for your witness, Jean Vanier.