Palm Trees, Psalm Breeze

|| Resting in God Even at Christmas

We used to have a wide but stout palm tree resting in the centre of our backyard. I remember trying to climb its rough and jagged edges of the trunk, but only making it a few inches off the ground.

My siblings and I spent a chunk of our childhood in the Southern state of Florida, playing in the suburban atmosphere of one of their Northern sites, Panama City. When I tell this to people, most people are surprised.

“You don’t seem American”, they tend to say.

“I’m not,” I usually reply. Sometimes it makes me think, Hmm but what if I were? What makes an American an American? “I was born in Canada and moved twice before we landed in Panama City when I was 3. We left when I was 7.”

I remember singing “ The Star Spangled Banner” every morning while holding hands around the American flag and performing a  song with the lyrics “I am proud to be an American” for our parents when they came to visit us during the day. I remember telling my dad that I felt like I was lying when I sang those lyrics because I wasn’t American. He told me it was okay to sing the lyrics just this once. (As a Canadian military officer, he made us sing “O Canada” at night before bed so that we wouldn’t forget our national anthem. Talk about patriotic, if you ask me lol.)

Of course there were happy memories playing in our pool and heading to Disney World in Orlando once.

I remember asking my mom how everyone in Canada knew about Florida and why they always wanted to go there.

“Well,” she said, “it’s warmer.”

As if something as small as temperature was why people left their home country!! (Apparently temperature wasn’t a “thing” for me when I was younger lol).

But truth be told, I was so excited when my parents told me we were moving back to Canada because I was excited to see snow, and get away from dangerous and poisonous animals. When I got to Canada, the kids in my class thought it was “so cool” that I lived in Florida and asked me if I missed it.

My response? “No… Why would I ever want to go back there?”

It took me a long time to figure out that their version of Florida was tropical palm trees and Disney World. They probably thought I saw Mickey Mouse every day and spent my time getting autographs from celebrities and Winnie the Pooh or something.

My version of Florida, on the other hand, was getting bitten by aggressive red fire ants that only exist in the Southern states, being put in a private school because the American public school system wasn’t all that great, feeling terrified that a shark was going to eat my siblings alive at the beach, and feeling slightly disappointed that we didn’t get snow for Christmas.

It wasn’t all that terrible of course. I loved my teachers at the private school, and there were other military kids in my class, which made me feel not alone.

But one thing I did miss in particular was that palm tree in my backyard.

I’ve always felt an attachment to nature. That palm tree was sturdy, in the centre of the spacious yard and it always stood as a reminder to me that I was home in a country that wasn’t my own.

Psalm 118: 5 reads: “When hard pressed, I cried to the Lord; he brought me into a spacious place.”

There’s something about a spacious place that brings comfort. A space to find peace, to breathe and take rest. That was my backyard with the palm tree for me.

Part of me can’t help but wonder if Jesus felt the same way when palm branches were laid before Him as He rode a donkey through the streets. This was not His permanent home, but the palm branches symbolised peace and victory in a place where He knew He was going to die to save us. In that moment, did He feel at peace in a space that technically was already His, but wasn’t functioning the way that God had planned for it to be?

Traditionally, the Israelites waved palm branches in celebration for the Jewish festival called Sukkot, held on the 15th of Tishri (which to be honest, I don’t fully understand yet, but know that it usually lands between September and October). During this celebration in the Old Testament, they would wave palms and recite Psalm 118:

“When hard pressed, I cried to the Lord;
    he brought me into a spacious place.
The Lord is with me; I will not be afraid.
    What can mere mortals do to me?
The Lord is with me; he is my helper.
    I look in triumph on my enemies” (v. 5-7)

I didn’t realize it at the time, but making the move we did made an impact on me. I didn’t have one of those “best-friends-since-birth” persons in my life that I went to day-care and elementary school and high school with, because I had moved. At times, I felt alone, even though I had siblings.

But the Lord was with me wherever I went. The Lord is with me wherever I go. He is my helper (v. 7).

In this psalm, they go on to shout praises “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” (v. 26), which is exactly what the Israelites say when Jesus rides through Jerusalem on the donkey in Matthew 21 and John 12. “Hosanna in the highest!”

The Israelites recognized that Jesus was worthy of praise, even though he wasn’t riding in on some gallant steed with royal robes. It was a simple donkey. The Israelites were not throwing silver coins at Jesus or worshipping him in magnanimous ways, but rather simply waving palm branches and offering shouts of joy.

Jesus knew what was going to happen to Him and yet… He only asked for, planned for, and received such a small offering. For someone who was going to die to save all of mankind… I mean, I think he deserved far better gifts and worship than a simple donkey and some simple palm branches!

But clearly God’s version of worship is different than mine.

His version of worship was simply hearts of His people through praiseful words and adoration, and the physical servanthood of laying down those branches.

Now, I know what you’re thinking… what does all this palm branch and psalm stuff have to do with your childhood palm tree?

I’m getting to that 😛

When we moved out into the country close to a small town called Gananoque, there were other trees in my backyard that were not in my backyard in Panama City: birch, pine, black walnut, maple. They were beautiful. Standing tall, each with its own significance and own story to tell.

Each of these were meant to grow in different temperatures than that of the hot and humid south.

Like trees, we are planted in each area accordingly, growing where God sees us best us to grow, under weather conditions that only He can decide.

But I believe that no matter the season, no matter where we grow, we can always choose to go back to that restful space in our minds – where God invites us to commune with him and truly take the time to worship him in praiseful words, adoration, and the physical servanthood of laying down those branches.

Sometimes “those branches” can be simply be bringing your anxieties, worries and expectations to God and laying them at the foot of the cross.

Sometimes “those branches” can be serving God through bringing baked goods to an elderly widow who doesn’t know how to cook for “just one” now.

Sometimes “those branches” can be setting aside half an hour to put on praise and worship tunes, and truly meaning every lyric you speak.

When I rest in God, my mind often travels back to that spacious place and that palm tree in my childhood. I imagine Jesus sitting with me, encouraging me to try to climb, catching me when I fall, and simply letting me rest in His presence as His child. This is life’s greatest pleasure!

What palm branches can you lay down this Christmas season? Lay them down so that your hands are free to pick up the truly greatest gift of all: Jesus Christ and the peaceful presence he offers us.

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