A Lesson In Drawing Trees (Hint: Open Your Eyes)

Monday I took my girls to the park and gave them assignments. I said, “Find something to draw.” Before I could finish London ran away, pencil and notebook in hand.

Eve was less enthusiastic.

I told her to draw a tree.

Five seconds later she’d drawn a tree. Boom. Done.

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I wasn’t letting her off the hook that easily.

"Eve," I said, "Draw this tree, the one right here." I pointed to the beautiful, long-limbed, wiry, Texas tree in front of us. She sighed and started drawing.

"Hold on," I said. "You need to look first. You can’t draw it until you see it."

For the next fifteen minutes she looked and drew. Her face scrunched up; her eyes squinted, and her eraser worked double time as she struggled to represent what she saw.

This is the second tree she drew:

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If I showed you Eve’s first picture, you’d quickly identify it as a tree. It’s looks like a “tree” in the generic, symbolic sense.

If I showed you the second picture, you’d have a harder time identifying it as a tree. And yet, it looks much more like the tree she intended to draw. The squiggly, wandering lines capture its uniqueness and character.

I think this is a snapshot of something we humans do all the time.

Way too often we settle for the generic picture, because the real picture’s harder to draw and harder to understand. We speak in generalizations and platitudes, communicating in black and white while a world of colors sits untouched.

We do it when we talk about God, reducing Him to a handful of characteristics (the characteristics in our handful largely dependent on our faith tradition). We say things like “God is love” or “God is sovereign” as conversation conclusions (as if those characteristics eliminate mystery or complexity) instead of seeing them as on ramps to further exploration.

We do it when we talk about “the church,” a wildly diverse family of people, all frequently grouped under descriptors like “irrelevant” or “judgmental” or “hypocritical.” Look for more that a moment at what the church actually is, who it includes, and you’ll find something far more interesting to draw.

We do it all the time with just about everything—drawing, speaking, assessing, and evaluating without even a lingering glance, arriving at just the neat, palatable conclusions we expected we would.

This week, tired and pretty down,  I told my husband “I am always _______.”  He smiled and said (very sympathetically) “I know you feel that way right now, but I wonder if you actually ‘always’ feel that way.”

I wanted to throw a shoe at him.

But only because he was right.

My hasty generalization had thrown my whole life into an oversimplified category. And in oversimplifying I’d diminished myself and diminished the story God was telling through me.

When we fail to really look at the world around us—at the people we love, at the people we misunderstand and even at our own lives—we make everything less, even (especially) God.

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In case you haven’t heard, I’ll be leading Field Notes: Austin [a workshop] this next weekend. It’s a workshop in writing to see. Just like I made Eve stare down that tree, I’ll compel participants to take a long look at their lives, relationships, problems, blessings, and God. Especially God.

When we take the time to look, we see more than simple, one-size-fits-all answers. We see the beautiful, mysterious, wandering, wild truth.