Thankfulness, Past and Future

A Writing Exercise from The Merry Mystic

Here in the United States, we’ll celebrate Thanksgiving Day this coming Thursday. Today, I’m getting an early start. I’m practicing thankfulness, using a little two-part writing exercise that I’d like to share with you. First, I’ll go through the exercise myself; then I’ll say a little bit about how you can try it too.

Part One: Thankfulness Past

It starts with thankfulness. The first thing that comes to mind today is that I’m thankful for a certain place I used to live—a place I still think of as home, though I don’t live there any more. It’s Princeton, Illinois. I went to high school there, and I met my wife there. With a group of friends, I helped to start a church there: the Open Prairie United Church of Christ. I love those people, and I love the vision we shared. I’m thankful for those friends and for that experience.

I’m thankful today for the seminary I attended, the Earlham School of Religion, where I learned things that are still moving me forward. You know, I used to have an academic career; I’ve studied at three colleges and taught at three others; but among all those institutions of higher learning, it’s the Earlham School of Religion that has a special place in my heart. It was a remarkably accepting and generous community. I felt like I could really be myself there, myself with full force. I had some great teachers there, and some good friends, and we all helped each other on the journey.

I’m thankful today for the training communities, the Karatedo Doshinkan dojos, where I’ve been a member. I was blessed to train with some life-changing teachers—Shihan Dr. Dean Lillard and Shihan Dr. June Pilcher, especially—and the communities around them were exciting and empowering. My friends in those communities trained hard, and they made it a key practice to help each other learn.

And I’m thankful today for my birth family: my remarkable parents, and my remarkable brother, and my remarkable sister. When I was a boy, I didn’t realize how lucky I was. I do now. And I’m thankful today for my wife of almost thirty-two years, and our amazing daughter, and our amazing son. I’ve always known how lucky I am to have their shining spirits with me on the journey.

Part Two: Thankfulness Future

Now all this thankfulness is leading me to a feeling—but I don’t know a word for this feeling. It’s sort of like homesickness, but without the nostalgia. It’s a longing for a home, for a feeling of community. All the blessings I’ve just given thanks for, they tend that way. They point that way. So now I have a sort of longing for the community to which they point. It’s a belonging-longing, a longing for a home, and I don’t quite know where it is.

My home is a place where people laugh a lot, I know that.

My home is a community of people who get excited about their projects. They have energy, and they run with it.

People sing there a lot, too. They get together and sing. Just for fun.

I’m pretty sure the food is really good there. Simple, but good: soup, stew, fresh bread. And chocolate, of course.

My home is a place where people are glad to receive what I’m glad to give. My work has a place there. I’m at home there, the way an apple tree is at home in a land of people who love apples.

But most of all, this: my home is a place where people take care of each other. They like working together. They practice helping each other on the journey.

I don’t know: can you be homesick for a home you haven’t lived in yet? Is this heaven-sickness—is it kingdom-of-God-sickness—is it a longing for something beyond this life? Or is it also possible here and now? Is it, perhaps, waiting for me to help create it, to help build it and sustain it?

Maybe what I’m feeling is a future direction: a future thankfulness that I need to help bring to life.

Your Turn

Now, friends, what I just did was a thankfulness exercise, and I invite you to try this exercise for yourself. The exercise has two steps. Step one: take some time to think and write a bit about some things for which you’re particularly thankful right now. Step two: look back over what you’ve written, and ask yourself this: where are those things going? Where are they pointing? Because I think that the things we’re thankful for shouldn’t just stay in the past, as objects of nostalgia; they should point us to the future. In my case, my thankfulness was focused on experiences of friendship and community—and they seem to be pointing me toward a future community that I realize I need to help build.

What are you thankful for, and where does it point you? Post something here and share your thoughts. I look forward to reading about your thankfulness, past and future.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Be Still

A Stilling Chant from The Merry Mystic

This week’s message is a guided contemplative practice called a stilling chant.  It’s a quiet chant that gets progressively shorter, until you are left with a speaking silence between you and God.  For this practice, you want to be in a safe and quiet place—or, at least, some place where you can sit comfortably and pray with your eyes closed.

Be still, and know that I am God.  —Psalm 46:10

Because your eyes will be closed, there’s no video this week, but only audio.  The audio lasts about six minutes; the time that follows can last as long as you like.  You can pray, or meditate, or contemplate, or just drift off to sleep—whatever your body and spirit need!

(For those wanting to lead a group in this practice, sheet music is available in our Free Stuff area.)

If you use the practice, please leave a comment below.  What was your experience?

Cloverleaf Rolls

Spiritual Cookery from The Merry Mystic

Here’s my favorite bread recipe: cloverleaf rolls.

Is there an activity like this in your life — something that might seem mundane, but that is (or could become) a spiritual practice for you? Please tell us about it!

Best blessings,


P.S. For those who’d like to try it, here’s that recipe for cloverleaf rolls.

1. Stir a packet of yeast into half a cup of warm water, with an eighth of a teaspoon of sugar. Give it five minutes or so to show you it’s alive.

2. Mix together three and a half cups of flour (that’s about a pound), two tablespoons of butter (I grated it in, because I couldn’t find my pastry knife), two teaspoons of salt, half a cup of milk, a third of a cup of water, and one egg. Once it’s thoroughly mixed, let it rest for five minutes or so.

3. Knead it — roughly fifty times, but who’s counting? Then put the dough in an oiled bowl, cover it, and leave it in a warm place to rise. Allow an hour or more for this — it should rise to at least one and a half times its original volume. (In the video, I let it go a bit too long — it more than doubled in volume — but that’s okay too.)

4. Punch it down and knead it briefly again. Cut and roll it into small balls, and put three balls in each cup of an oiled muffin pan. It takes two 3×4 muffin pans — I usually get 18-20 rolls. Cover the pans (I used oiled cling film) and let them rise again.

5. Brush each roll with melted butter. Bake at 375 degrees Fahrenheit for about 16 minutes, until lightly browned.

Blessed baking!

Fasting at Perspectives

I have an essay on fasting, “Why Fast? Ten Contentious Reasons“, in this month’s issue of Perspectives.  While you’re there, do check out the rest of Perspectives—it’s an interesting journal speaking from within the Reformed stream of Christianity.  I particularly liked Jason Lief’s essay in this month’s issue: “Leave Metallica Alone!  Why Metallica Coming to Church Is a Bad Idea“.


I gather my weapons. No one else in the house is awake yet, save only the cat, and he’s too concerned now with the contents of his dish to pay any further attention to me. I ease the back door open and slip outside. The dew on the back steps chills my bare feet. The neighboring cottages are quiet, and there’s no one in sight. Good. I’d just as soon not be seen. With silent steps I make my way down the path, past the parking lot, past the old hotel, and onto the empty beach. I place my weapons carefully on the sand. I kneel, preparing myself.

Preparing myself, but not for violence. I have never used a weapon in earnest against another creature. I am a student of a traditional martial art—Karatedo Doshinkan—and my weapons this morning are simple wooden ones: the bo (a six-foot staff) and the tonfa (a pair of short sticks with handles). Each morning, when I can, I come to this beach on Lake Michigan to train, sometimes with weapons and sometimes without them. Each morning I begin with an opening ceremony of kiotsuke (gathering ki, life-energy) and rei (showing respect), preparing for my daily training in the way I first learned twenty years ago. And each morning, as part of this ceremony, I kneel and pray.

Hanshi Isao Ichikawa, the founder of my system of Karatedo, opened each training with this traditional ceremony, which includes a time of kneeling silence. I never heard him give any instruction on what to do with this silence; it wasn’t his way to tell when he could show. I don’t think he thought of it as a time of prayer, but that’s what it is for me. In fact, my whole morning training is often a time of prayer—a time of heightened awareness of God’s presence.

The training itself involves the practice of many kata, traditional training dances. To learn a kata, a student watches a teacher carefully and attempts to imitate the movements. The kata are fully packed, containing many self-defense techniques. They bear wisdom from out of the past, and they reward close study. I have worked with these kata for twenty years, and practiced the techniques with partners. In the process I have lost some of my old fear of physical conflict. Why I should have had such fear I don’t know: I haven’t been in a fight since I was a child. Why I should have lost that fear is another mystery: there’s no guarantee that I would win a fight now, or even that I would choose to try to defend myself against an attack.

Such questions have receded in importance for me. Kata contain self-defense techniques in the way that poems contain words; a kata is not merely a collection of techniques any more than a poem is merely a vocabulary list. In one way, the kata are strictly programmed forms that must be learned and followed; in another way they allow freedom, because the movements can be, and should be, expressed with feeling. The movements are not to be mimicked robotically, but thoughtfully adapted to the body and spirit of the person doing them.

Hanshi taught these movements carefully, but also used to emphasize that technique isn’t everything. In one rare moment of explanation he suggested that we try to perform kata as a mother sings lullabies to her child. When singing a lullaby it doesn’t hurt to have the vocal technique of a professional singer, but that isn’t the most important thing. What really makes a lullaby beautiful, with or without perfect technique, is the mother’s feeling for her child. And I find that when I am properly mindful a kata can be an intensely prayerful dance with God.

This morning, I start with my time of kneeling silence. The lake, which was noisy with waves all night, is at rest now, and the sun is not yet up. I kneel in the cold damp sand, eyes closed. I reflect with gratitude on my shivering body: I am a 48-year-old man, no great athlete, no paragon of strength or beauty, yet all my limbs seem to be working this morning, and we are all, as scripture says, fearfully and wonderfully made. I think about my teachers—the late Hanshi, Shihan Dean, Shihan June, Shihan Leone, Hanshi Nobuo Ichikawa. I picture them in my mind and pray my thanks for them. I offer my training to God, and ask that God watch and receive my practice. I wait and listen in the silence. And when it’s time, I open my eyes, and rise, and begin.

I begin, of course, with physical warm-ups. Some of them look pretty silly. I must confess, this is the part I’d rather not have anyone see. I’m vain enough to hope that, if anyone does pass by this early in the morning, they’ll at least wait until I’m doing something more impressive than swiveling my hips and swinging my arms. That’s another kind of fear I’ve worked on over the last twenty years—the fear of looking ridiculous. And now I do hear an approaching noise. It’s a rushing, murmuring sound. I look around, but no, it’s overhead: swans! In a V-formation they pass above me, heading up the shoreline. Up where they’re flying, the rising sun already touches them, and they shine a brilliant white. They don’t seem to have taken any notice of me and my ridiculous wind-milling.

I’ve trained in many other places: on top of a peak in New Mexico, on a lawn in California, in a gym in New York, in a field in Germany. Mostly, I’ve learned not to be self-conscious about training alone. When I was a seminary student at the Earlham School of Religion, I did my morning trainings on the lawns of the nearby Quaker Hill Conference Center. When I first started my studies at the seminary, knowing little about the culture, I was afraid that people at Quaker Hill might take exception to apparent aggressiveness of some of the training; I imagined some frowning Quaker giving me stern advice about it. I needn’t have worried: even the deer at the wood’s edge were undisturbed by my morning trainings. Maybe they could tell that for me the training has little to do with aggression, but much to do with prayer. However that may be, I don’t have to be self-conscious about training alone here on the beach this morning.  Such fears have also receded for me: despite my apparent solitude, I know that I am not training alone.

Warm-ups completed, I move into a time of practicing kata. I begin with the seven Kyoku kata—the sunrise kata—and I pray them repeatedly to God with my body, wordlessly. In this time of prayer I do not communicate verbal concepts to God: no praise, no request, no thanks, no complaint. We show more than tell, and dance more than show. This is an essentially kinetic prayer, a dance to God and with God, an expression of what it means to be alive and incarnate, performed with full feeling.

The sun rises to touch me. The hour wears away. There is no room for fear or self-consciousness. My fearfully-and-wonderfully-made body becomes hot and tired and stuck all over with sand. And as I train, I become more aware of God, and I feel God’s eyes on me. And a slow elation rises.