How to Hold On Loosely and Know When to Let Go
Thomas C. Willadsen

Oshkosh calls itself “Wisconsin’s Event City.” Oshkovites are quite proud of having hosted the Miss Wisconsin Pageant every June since the mid-1960s. Later in the summer, typically the last week in July, our airport becomes the busiest airport on earth when the Experimental Aircraft Association holds its annual fly-in there. (For aviation buffs, “Oshkosh” is practically synonymous with paradise.)

In addition to beauty pageants and fly-ins, we love a parade. The one on the Fourth of July seems right out of a Norman Rockwell painting, and each November we have a nighttime holiday parade. The annual Memorial Day procession leads walkers from the heart of downtown to the cemetery where many veterans are buried. This one is not a parade, but a procession. Parades celebrate; processions remember.

processionI would bet we lead the nation in the number of girls who take baton twirling, tumbling, and gymnastics. Every time masses of citizens gather along a curb to watch people pass by, there are oodles of shiny, bouncy, smiling little ones. “The well-trained students of today are the stars of tomorrow,” announces a float that accompanies one dance studio’s troupe. (Oshkosh excels in other ways, too, some not directly related to parades, processions, or other events. We are, for instance, the reigning champs for per capita brandy consumption, and we rank in the Top 10 American cities for the variety of frozen pizza in our supermarkets.)

Sunday, the 24th of March, 2019, was a big day for processions in Oshkosh. I found myself in four before 3:00 in the afternoon. While each marked a different occasion, their similarities were striking. Walking slowly in single file gave me time to examine our community’s penchant for such events.

My first stop that day was Christ Lutheran Church on Church Avenue. I arrived at about 9:15 a.m. for what was to be the congregation’s last worship service in this location. About 100 people were in attendance—an excellent turnout.

The church had been on Church Avenue since before the turn of the twentieth century. In 1955, the original building was moved about 300 yards to the north to make room for Oshkosh’s new city hall. It remains the largest building move in Wisconsin history. In 1968, the congregation built an addition to house the sanctuary and offices. Back then, families were larger and people lived downtown. There was no need to think about parking; families walked to church.

Religious participation and denominational loyalty were at historic highs in the 1960s. Five decades on, many congregations find themselves in similar situations to Christ Lutheran, burdened with buildings that were built for their Golden Age. The challenges of maintaining the facility were making it impossible for Christ Lutheran to follow its mission of “Living Out the Love of Christ,” yet it was difficult for many members to even consider leaving their cherished home. When the bishop assigned Connie Weiss, a yet-to-be ordained, second-career pastor, to the congregation, she brought energy and vision. Pastor Connie helped the congregation take an honest look at itself, allowing them to dream about where the Holy Spirit might lead them.

Through that process, the congregation got over its Edifice Complex. The members realized that they would have the chance to thrive—not just survive—if only they could get out from under the burden of their building. They met, prayed, dreamed, imagined—and best of all, they found a buyer!

As the worshippers gathered that morning of March 24, they heard the bishop speak words of gratitude for their beloved building before it was decommissioned. Pastor Connie’s sermon was about new life, drawing on Jesus’s parable about giving a fig tree one more year to be productive. Prior to processing to the altar rail to receive Communion—the day’s first procession—worshippers were told that they could keep their glass communion cups as mementos, tangible connections to the old building of which they were letting go. We were given small Ziploc® bags for our cups.

At the conclusion of worship, the congregation processed out of the sanctuary—procession two—singing “On Our Way Rejoicing.” We got in our cars and the procession continued down Church Avenue, onto Main Street, and finally to the new worship space on Broad Street, about a mile from the former location and a stone’s throw from the Fox River. Members of other local Lutheran congregations held signs that read, “This way to the Promised Land” and “Welcome Home.” At first glance these well-wishers looked like protesters, but who would be protesting something in downtown Oshkosh on a Sunday morning? (I suppose in one sense they were—aren’t Lutherans the original Protestants?)

Prior to entering the new worship space, we gathered in the parking lot to commission the new joint. Then there was a potluck, because Lutherans.

processionCoinciding with Christ Lutheran’s move, Oshkosh was saying farewell to a group of monks from Drepung Loseling Monastery in India. The monks had spent a week in residence at the Paine Art Center and Gardens, where they put in hundreds of hours to construct a mandala.The theme for this mandala was healing. Their visit began with a welcome ceremony led by leaders from six different religious traditions. The need for healing was not abstract; the world was still reeling in the wake of the shootings at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, nine days earlier. Healing was exactly what we needed.

The monks regard the act of constructing the mandala as a type of meditation. The public was invited to watch as the monks put colored sand into small copper funnels and tapped the funnels gently in order to guide each grain of sand into the right place, creating a work of stunning beauty and complexity in the process. Then, after working on the mandala for seven days, they swept it away. The beauty of the mandala, like all things to Buddhists, was temporary.

(For more enlightenment on Buddhism, here’s a joke: The Dalai Lama was asked whether it was acceptable for a Buddhist to use email. After meditating for several hours, he concluded, “Yes, as long as it is free of attachments.”)

The mandala, though temporary, was the sum of the concentration and prayer that the monks had put into its creation. Its end was really more like a continuation—the monks swept the sand into special containers, mixing all the colors together, creating a dusty, drab blue. (It reminded me of the time someone made a punch by adding rainbow sherbet to ginger ale at my son’s preschool Christmas party. The punch tasted fine, but had a sort of battleship gray color that made it unappetizing.) The monks processed with the containers to a dock on the Fox River, and, with prayer and music, released the sand into the moving water. From the dock, the grains would be swept away by the river’s current, heading up the Fox River, past Christ Lutheran’s new location, eventually into Green Bay and then Lake Michigan. Because all moving water ultimately finds its way to the ocean, the prayers and blessings of each grain of sand—the global desire for healing—would surround the earth.

The fourth procession was the most interesting. Spectators who had walked from the museum to the riverside returned to the museum. We had been promised grains of sand to take with us, mementos of the impermanence of the mandala. Wait. What?

The table in the center of the room where the mandala had been constructed still held a small amount of sand. As spectators returned to that room, it was not clear where the line began. It was not exactly chaotic, but it was confusing. I found myself in the last group to process past the table to get my souvenir. It took forty-five minutes—the longest, slowest procession of the day. Aside from some quiet muttering that we had chosen the wrong line, no one really complained. People near me exuded a serene patience. Perhaps the mandala had its intended effect on the citizens of Oshkosh.

I smiled as I bowed and thanked the monk for the day’s second memento, this one also stored in a Ziploc® bag. Walking to my car, I mused that four processions is a lot for one day, even for Wisconsin’s Event City.

Once I was back home following my day of processions, I was left with two lingering questions: What does one do with a communion cup from a church one visited only once? And what does one do with a packet of sand, each grain of which conveys a wish for world healing?

I put the cup and sand packet in my personal junk drawer. They joined my office key, some extra square-head screws for the braces to the garage door, a token for a free cone from Culver’s, thirty-seven paper clips, a pretty bit of shell I picked up from the shore in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in 2001, the notebooks where I record my exercise minutes and books I’ve read, four tubes of lip balm, box tops I’m saving for the local grade school, thirteen pens, and forty-six pen parts that have somehow detached from their pens of origin. My new mementos also joined the pouch my mom gave me in 1986 to organize coupons, the matchbox car that is precisely the color blue of my favorite necktie, a flier listing hours for the recycling center, three fortune cookie fortunes, a scrap of paper on which I wrote the dimensions for...something, two marbles, the rewards card from the Nebraska gas station where I stopped for coffee last summer, the St. Christopher medal I found at a nearby playground, a cartoon I clipped out of the newspaper for my brother, the postcard reminding me to get my oil changed, four deposit tickets for my son’s checking account, three open packages of hearing aid batteries, the South Korean coin that looked like a penny when I picked it up in the library parking lot, two combs, and the riddle from last year’s Christmas cracker.

As I conducted this partial inventory, I found myself meditating on a kind of koan: What is the sound of grape juice fermenting in a souvenir communion cup?

Ecclesiastes tells us there is “a time to keep, and a time to throw away.” Like most things in life, the trick is knowing when. If Christ Lutheran’s first month in the new location is any indication, it appears they seized the right moment. Like the fig tree that got a one-year reprieve, they now look to be blossoming. I visited on Easter and found a packed, joy-filled worship service. The communionware was plastic, but the grace was real.

In addition to the Bible, I frequently draw wisdom from other, less obvious sources. Here’s one of those. Back in my high school days, .38 Special was an average rock band, the sort that played the free grandstand shows at county fairs. They were more likely to be an opening act than the headliner. Yet my mind goes back to one of their songs from years ago, “Hold on Loosely.” The chorus went like this:

Just hold on loosely,
But don’t let go
If you cling too tightly
You’re gonna lose control
Your baby needs someone to believe in
And a whole lot of space to breathe in

 Everything I learned about Family Systems Theory is encapsulated in those words. I have used those words in counseling sessions. Relationships—even our relationships with our possessions—are all about finding just how hard to hold on, and knowing when it’s best to let go.

In the case of my packet of sand, I did not have to choose to let go. After spending a month in the junk drawer mingled with other treasures, all the sand had spilled out of its Ziploc® bag. The communion cup was empty, too. Perhaps healing has come, at last, to my drawer. It’s a start.


Thomas C. Willadsen hasbeen a Presbyterian minister for more than twenty-five years. He has been a Cresset contributor for nearly as long. He lives in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

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