Under Heaven

By Rev. Dr. Daniel Cochran

I knew of Pete Seeger long before I had heard of Ecclesiastes. As a teenager, I learned from my father not only the big bands of the 1960s but also the musical lineage of their hit songs. By seventh grade, for example, I knew that The Byrds’ 1965 chart-topper “Turn! Turn! Turn!” was made famous by the Limeliters in 1962 but originally recorded in 1959 by the peerless Pete Seeger. 

What I didn’t know at the time was that Seeger had simply set to music the third chapter of Ecclesiastes – a poetic book of wisdom literature found in the Old Testament. By adding just six words to eight verses, Seeger created a powerful protest song that has been rearranged countless times and featured in period films such as Forrest Gump. But the song endures in popular culture, in part, because the original Biblical text captures a challenging truth of our human experience: change is inevitable (and often difficult). 

We are living this truth today! The pandemic changed everything, we know, but a “return to normal” also involves a host of changes. Our society is rapidly changing in ways that are frightening to some and liberating for others. Grace UMC is changing too; we’re not only adjusting to pandemic protocols but also to changes in our membership and staff. Some of these changes are sad and painful, others are occasions for celebration and joy, and still others evoke a range of emotions—these are bittersweet, as they say.

The good news, Ecclesiastes reminds us, is that every change is “under heaven.” God does not necessarily cause each change (God did not cause the pandemic), but God certainly walks with us through every change; there is never a single second when we are separated from the presence and love of God (Romans 8). Through good times and bad, we rejoice that it is in God that “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Living in the light of this truth grants us not only strength and courage to face inevitable change but also an enduring spirit of joy and gratitude for what has been and what will be. 

I am leaning on the wisdom of Ecclesiastes as I prepare for my departure from Grace on June 13. This change, or turn, in my ministry is certainly bittersweet for me, full of both sadness and excitement. But with Ecclesiastes on my heart, I am beginning to see how both emotions are really expressions of gratitude. Saying goodbye is difficult because I am so very grateful for our time together. Thank you for welcoming me and my family into your church family. Thank you for trusting me with your stories and for sharing with me such joyful and heartbreaking moments as baptisms and weddings, funerals and burials. I have been blessed to walk with you through this pandemic, finding comfort in our common worship, prayer, and study. My excitement for what lies ahead in Wheaton is also grounded in gratitude—gratitude for this calling that God has placed upon my heart and for the continued opportunity to live into this calling as an appointed pastor in this dynamic conference of the United Methodist Church.

Good, bad, or bittersweet, change is an inevitable part of life. But Ecclesiastes (and Pete Seeger) remind us that God is present with us through it all, supporting us during the hard times and dancing with us through the good. In faith, then, we lean into whatever changes come our way, eternally grateful for the turning of the seasons, grateful for our fellow siblings in Christ, and grateful to belong to such a loving God.