Guest editorial: Lessons from a palm tree

(Photo by Anna Carson)

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While Italy played Brazil for a World Cup soccer match in Mexico, a magnitude 8.0 earthquake struck just off the coast of Peru. At the top of Peru’s highest mountain, an enormous chunk of earth dislodged and created a massive avalanche. Within three minutes, a 3,000-foot-wide wall of mud, rock, snow and ice completely buried a town and most of its 25,000 people who had no chance to get away.

A decade after that 1970 tragedy, my family visited the site of what had been Yungay. We walked across a vast, open plain—now a national cemetery—that hides the remains of homes, shops, buses, bicycles, park benches and lives. All of this rested 18 feet under the ground.

Remnants of a cathedral and the back end of a half-buried bus provided eerie reminders of the former town. Yet something continued to live in this place of death—the tops of four trees stuck out of the ground. Still rooted in the town square far beneath us, the palm trees had survived!

Compared to trees

My wife and I lived in five countries and worked in another three during nearly 30 years as missionaries. Our administrative roles provided us with constant exposure to diverse people in various settings, yet the common call to share the gospel bound us with all of them. Over these years, a golden-nugget Bible verse drew my attention again and again. Psalm 92:12 says, “The righteous thrive like a palm tree.”

Psalm 92, a Sabbath-day song, tells of God’s love and faithfulness in the morning and at night (v. 2), the mighty works of his hands and the great depths of his thoughts (v. 5). God’s people will affirm he is just and righteous (v. 15).

The psalmist also provided an intriguing picture of the lives of missionaries and faithful believers. He drew a sharp contrast between the righteous, who praise God, and the foolish, who do not. While the foolish and wicked are compared to weeds (v. 7), the righteous are compared to trees (vv. 12-14).

Missionaries are not spiritual heroes called by God to share the gospel because of a superior level of maturity in Christ. We, like all believers, frequently don’t get things right. But regardless of our shortcomings, we are among the righteous. We will thrive like a palm tree.

Common characteristics

Although nearly 3,000 species of palms exist, they have these things in common:

• They are recognizable. While an arborist might identify any species of tree, almost anyone would recognize a palm tree.

• They grow practically anywhere. Although usually considered tropical, various species of palms are compatible with other climates—even cold ones.

• They suggest serenity. With fronds rustling in a gentle breeze, they offer a sense of peace and well-being.

• They withstand hard times. Although doubled over by hurricane winds, they remain standing. Their roots grow down and out, giving the tree unique stability.

• They are evergreen. They are pleasing to the eye in every season.

• They offer hope. Imagine yourself crossing a desert, parched and dehydrated. Then, on the horizon, the sight of an oasis appears. Where there are palm trees, there is water.

• They are graceful. They go with the flow. As they sway, their branches interlace instead of bruising each other. Even strong winds pass through without damaging them.

• They symbolize peace and victory. Their branches represented peace among Middle-Eastern people in ancient times. And on Palm Sunday, we observe the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem.

Like palm trees …

• In many shapes and sizes, we are recognized as Christ’s followers.

• We grow wherever God sees fit to plant us.

• We offer a calm presence in the midst of a chaotic world.

• We withstand the hard times.

• We are pleasant to those who interact with us.

• We represent and preach hope.

• We exhibit grace and forbearance in opposition.

• We live triumphantly, knowing that Christ has gained our victory over sin and death.

Although we may at times find ourselves in harsh surroundings, at odds with upbringing and expectations, we can choose to continue sharing the gospel in a hopeless, perishing world.

Hayward Armstrong is professor of missions at Union University’s School of Theology and Missions. He spent 14 years in Peru, followed by service in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay in support of International Mission Board missionaries. He is the author of several missions-related books, including M-Life Illustrated: Reflections on the Lives of Cross-Cultural Missionaries.

Patti Richter lives in the Dallas area. She writes and edits International Outreach stories for The Gospel Coalition and contributes faith and ministry articles regularly to several other publications.


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