Several of my friends are beginning to say “farewell” to careers. It’s hard to believe. I know for many retirement is not an issue and they will be finding something productive and challenging for the next several years. Nonetheless, for everyone it is a change and a transition. Not only are they saying farewell to work but to friends, clients, customers, donors, and people that have helped define them for so many years. The entire rhythm of life is interrupted. For some, it comes as a shock and they are unprepared. Unfortunately, many of these experience failing health, personal disintegration, and even death shortly afterwards. In losing the why to live they resign their will to live. For others, they have had a plan in place and even though it is difficult they have had time to consider how they leave and what they want to say.
I have been re-reading farewell speeches lately. Very few, if any, farewells will match the poetry of General MacArthur’s farewell at West Point: “I address you with neither rancor nor bitterness in the fading twilight of life with but one purpose in mind: to serve my country.” Some are brief and some interminable. Some are inspiring and others dispiriting.
Promises And Warnings
Some, like Paul’s farewell to the elders at Ephesus leave us fearful for the young church and it’s vulnerability to false teachers and wolves who are quick to take advantage of Paul’s absence.
It is the farewell address of Moses I keep re-reading.
While it could be the embarrassed farewell of a failed leader or even one who is bitter and angry, it is not. It could have been the aggrieved outburst of a man who had been deprived of what was his legacy due to a momentary lapse of temper. Instead, it is the final gesture of a man whose life was, for better and worse, tied to these people and their future. Yet, the central message is not a reflection of his complicated relationship with them but impressing on them they are now the carriers of God’s name and whatever they have been through has been for the purpose of preparing them for that. He is leaving the honor of God’s name in their hands. In equal parts both promises and warnings, Moses binds them to their inescapable responsibility. There is no going away gift from the people to him. There is no celebration for his years of service and leadership. He is, instead, putting the burden on them.
Shade and Shadow
I know a little of what that means as I share the same name as my father. It was not always a good thing for me or for him. There were times I wanted my own name. I didn’t want his name because that made me responsible for his reputation…but not by my choice. My sisters had it easier. They had their own name and reputation to worry about, but I was carrying around mine and his as well. It was not until years later that I understood how the burden could turn into a badge and the load become a legacy. It would have been fine to be a part of the family but carrying the name was different. When I was young people would say to me, "It must be difficult growing up in the shadow of your father." Yes it was. It was not until years later when I understood there is a difference between the shade of a father and the shadow. While there were struggles that were painful to us both about my sharing his name, the advantages gradually eclipsed the difficulties and today I am grateful for the shade of wisdom my father provided. In the same way, God gave them his name and there was no changing the assignment. They were now God’s identity and reputation in this world.
In some ways, those who are saying farewell have the same responsibility. It is not enough to slip away with a “well done” and a sense of having done their best. The people who are going on need to hear a challenge and know they are expected to live up to what they have been prepared to do. That is how a leader says goodbye.
Art by Philip C. Curtis