The harvest at the end of a life

“The prime of your life will be 40 years old,” the professor told me as I sat across his desk. It was the final day of my college life, and I had walked into his office seeking some advice as I sat on the verge of stepping out into a new phase of my life in the world. But his advice sounded queer: how am I supposed to feel about this? Should I live to the age of 40 and then just resign to a time of despair and gradual degradation until the bitter end?

Old age is not looked on favorably these days. Increasingly, we romanticize the young and disrespect the aged. Yesterday I was helping an 80-year-old neighbor fix his virus-infected computer. I’ve often visited him and learned, to my horror, how many people ruthlessly tried to use technology to trick him into giving up his passwords and bank account numbers, and he did succumb a couple times. At best, society looks at the elderly as senile, but at worst as easy targets for exploitation.

After I came back from fixing my neighbor’s computer, as I looked out into our backyard during lunch time, my son Chase said, “Look at the flower bulbs on the green onion!” In our backyard, we had planted a few different kinds of flowers and plants, but the beautiful lilies and tulips always attracted all the attention. So I had never really noticed much about the green onions, which were planted there by our 60-year-old domestic helper.

Seeing my interest in the green onions, she proceed to explain to me: “Yes the green onions will mature to an old age and then sprout these flower bulbs, and then we can take the seeds from them and plant more green onions.”

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I was amazed by the whole concept, so I looked it up. Green onions belong to a class of biennial plants that, near the time of its death, its sole purpose is to sprout these flower bulbs that produce a harvest of seeds. Because it has to focus all its energy in producing these flowers, it will not taste as good as green onions, but it’s basically giving itself up in order that other green onions will live on.

God in His wisdom used these plants in nature to be our “professor” about the paths of our lives. In fact, Jesus even used the same metaphor:

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. (John 12:24-25, ESV)

Fruitfulness is not through a path of gain, but a path of loss. Gain tends to lead to selfish possession, and so it “remains alone.” But the amazing thing is that the fruit comes from dying, and its effect is generous and life-giving. It reaches both outward and upward. Apostle Paul also said this:

He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God. (2 Corinthians 9:10-11, ESV)

It reminds me of what Gary Black Jr. wrote in the excellent book “Preparing for Heaven: What Dallas Willard Taught Me About Living, Dying, and Eternal Life” (that I cannot recommend more highly enough) about what he saw from Dallas Willard near the end of his life:

The process of death presents an opportunity for a heroic culmination of the wonder and potency of the gift that our lives have been up to the present moment. Viewed this way, death becomes a curtain call, a celebration, a joyful look at what has come from the investment of the time and gifts given us. We can then present our lives as a bountiful harvest to our loved ones, to the world, and to God.
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The pinnacle is not reached, the finish line not crossed, at midlife, but at the end of life. Such a perspective can only become a reality for us if or when we begin to realize death as just the end of the beginning that leads to eternity, not as an end in itself.

So don’t think you’re ever over the hill. The story of your life might end today or it might end many years from now, but with the hand of God, write it as a life of giving and multiplication with the anticipation that, as the story of this earthy life is all told, it will be a story yielding a harvest at the end of your life, and then leading to the beginning of a glorious life eternal.

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