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The Rest of the Story: A photographer explores cosmic dimensions of the cross of Christ

Meandering through the bed of a small creek near my home, most of which was dry, I discovered a microcosmic patch of wetland decay. Bejeweled by the bright sunlight, the miniature landscape invited closer scrutiny; it was then I noticed two darker blades of grass had formed a cross.

What I saw at that moment, I captured on film, and the image has become one of my favorites—not just because I think it’s artistic, but because the symbol of the cross in a setting of decay is for me a portent of things to come.

Obviously, creation displays the handiwork of its Maker. That’s a recurring biblical theme, especially in the Psalms. But that’s only part of the story.

The apostle Paul tells us that creation also groans from the heavy burden of sin weighing it down (Rom. 8:19-23). As author Paul Tillich puts it, creation is not only glorious but tragic. While sometimes we see glimpses of paradise, we also see the sorry consequences of humanity’s disobedience.

The Madrona Tree

Madrona trees, found most often on the Pacific coastlands, are known for their colorful bark. The outermost dark brown bark peels off in fascinating curlicues, revealing an attractive smooth, orange bark that stands out from the surrounding vegetation.

While visiting Whidbey Island in Puget Sound, however, I discovered and photographed a Madrona tree, the surface of which was scarred, misshapen, and grotesque.

This photo reminds me that our planet is no longer the perfect world that came from the mind and hand of the Creator. In many ways it is disturbed, distorted, and deformed.

Stubborn Bull Thistle

In mid-August, while walking down my street, I noticed a huge bull thistle, the big daddy of thistles in our parts. Its many branches sported a few dozen vibrant purple blossoms (perhaps a vestige of its original beauty). But it was the height of the thistle that caught my attention. It was 9 feet (almost 3 meters) tall.

My discovery vividly brought to mind the curse in Genesis 3:18: “[The ground] will produce thorns and thistles for you.” Obviously, some of the Creator’s fingerprints became pretty badly smudged after sin entered the world. With its abundance of sharp thorns, the bull thistle declared to me, “It’s not my fault I am the way I am. I’m menacing to you only because of the sin of Adam, passed on to his descendants—and you’re one of them!”

The Canada thistle, little cousin of the bull thistle, is of smaller stature and without spiny stems or prickly flower bracts. But the roots of this invasive weed reach into the soil 3 feet or more, and its rhizomes spread horizontally like wildfire. Heavy infestation may decrease yields of soybeans, corn, and wheat anywhere from 60 to 95 percent—one more manifestation of sin’s curse.

Biological Train Wreck

Consider what’s happening in North American forests: In Great Smoky Mountains National Park the balsam wooly adelgid, an aphid like insect, has devastated whole forests of Fraser firs. A close cousin, the hemlock wooly adelgid is now wreaking havoc. Within the span of one generation, eight or nine species of trees in North America are likely to disappear. One scientist describes the damage inflicted by these lethal tree plagues as a “biological train wreck.”

Years earlier a pervasive chestnut fungal blight wiped out the “redwood of the East,” considered one of the greatest biological disasters ever to hit the United States. Dutch elm disease also exacted its toll. More recently the emerald ash borer, an exotic Asian beetle (which probably hitchhiked here in the solid wood of packing cases) has destroyed   approximately 10 million ash trees in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, and Ontario. In some areas, gypsy moths continue to lay their eggs, resulting in armies of caterpillars that quickly and completely defoliate large trees.

Of course we regularly see the effects of sin on an even broader ecological scale. Hardly a day goes by when the media do not call our attention to some disorder, some aberration in the natural world that leads to death and destruction. Think of the recent killer tsunamis, or of Hurricane Katrina.

The fact remains: we have here no paradise.

Creation continues to groan.

The Good News

But there’s more to the story.

“Creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God,” Paul writes (Rom. 8:21). There’s a connection between my own resurrection and the renewal of this planet!

Not only will we personally share in the benefits of Christ’s resurrection, but the earth on which we now live will also be re-created, made new. The God whom we serve, who is seated on his throne, will make everything new (Rev. 21:5).

What a glorious truth: this earth will also share in the transformation that will take place when Christ returns. Count on it: the Creator of this world is not going to abandon what he made in the beginning. The supreme sacrifice of our Savior on the cross, Jesus’ glorious resurrection, and his triumphant ascension to his Father’s right hand guarantee not only our bodily resurrection but the cleansing of this sin-ravaged world.

The dimensions of the cross are wider and greater than we often realize. God sent his Son into this world not only to save sinners but to redeem this earth as well.

Two leaves of grass forming a cross in a patch of wetland decay? Hardly earthshaking. But when viewed as a portent of cosmic significance, the promise of a new heaven and earth, they proclaim good news!

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