Lessons From a Warthog: What a Zoo Taught Me About Judgment

This past week we celebrated Emily’s 2ndbirthday.  It’s been a great week with family in town, and cake and ice cream and presents.  Emily has been beside herself with excitement all week—it really has been the cutest thing.

She was particularly cute on Thursday when we visited the Dallas Zoo.  She had been to the zoo once before, but it was when her older cousin was visiting, when she was only a few months old.  So this was the first time that she had been to the zoo while she was really old enough to name all the animals and make their sounds and really know what was going on.

And she absolutely loved it.  
Each animal we saw brought a big smile to her face.  That sense of fascination and child-like wonder was in full display, and it was quite incredible.  
The cool part was, it really didn’t matter what the animal was; she loved it.  Granted, she had her favorites, but mainly because those were the ones that she was most familiar with from books and stuff.
For the most part, though, every animal she saw was as fascinating as the last.
She even liked the animals that weren’t officially part of the zoo!  Like when we were all standing at the flamingo display, trying to get her to look at the bright pink flamingos that were standing 30 feet away from us, she was fascinated by the little ordinary, brown duck that just happened to be sitting five feet in front of us.
Or when we were watching the gorillas in their habitat—which is one of my favorites—she saw a squirrel running around and was immediately glued to every move that the squirrel made.
In my experience as an adult at the zoo, I’ve already set up categories in my mind: which animals I want to see, which animals I don’t care about, which animals are beautiful and fascinating, and which animals are not.
For example, have you seen the Red River Warthog at the Dallas Zoo?  This thing was crazy looking.  I looked at the thing and and found myself thinking, “Wow, what was God thinking when he designed that guy??”
And just when I thought it couldn’t get worse than the warthog we came across the giant anteater.  I mean, really.  Look at it.
But did Emily care?  Of course not.  The only thing she would have cared about was whether it was awake or asleep, whether it was putting on a show by simply moving, or it was sitting still.
Did she know these animals were ugly?  Not unless I told her they were.  To a child, they we were just as fascinating as the last.  But to me, they were definitely placed in the category of ugly and crazy.
Unfortunately, it’s not much different than what we do with each other, is it?  We have this natural tendency to create categories.  We place each other in boxes of predetermined categories that limit the opportunities we give to one another based on preconceived judgments.  Even before meeting a someone and learning their story, we’ve judged them into a box.  
The real danger emerges when we pass on those prejudices to our children.  Emily doesn’t know that the Red River Warthog is “ugly” because I never told her it was.  To her, it’s a fascinating animal.  In the same way, the categories our children begin to form for other human beings are shaped the influence of the adults in their lives.  
Who are the people we deem “ugly” or “less-than” or “unlovable” or “crazy?”  And how are we passing on our own prejudices to the next generation?  
Instead, what would it look like if we learned from our children–if we looked at all of God’s creatures with the same benefit of a doubt with which Emily looked at all of the animals at the zoo?

Mean Restaurant Guests and the Power of Forgiveness

Quite possibly more than any other job I’ve ever had, I learned more about forgiveness and reconciliation while I worked as a server in a restaurant for the three years that I was in seminary. 

When you work in a restaurant, you tend to notice patterns in people.  One of those things that you see over and over is that when people show up to a restaurant, they’re usually hungry.
And when people are hungry, they’re usually cranky.  
And when people are cranky, they’re not usually fun to be around.
That’s when the server steps in.  

I saw it as my task in life to bring smiles to the faces of each guest that sat at one of my tables. 
Now, some people would just show up happy.  They were the easy tables.  They were the tables that you could get their entire order completely wrong and they’d say, “Oh, that’s okay.  Don’t worry about fixing it.  Whatever this is looks good.  I’ve been meaning to branch out and try something new anyway.”  Those people were wonderful, but they were rare.  
Then there were the people who were a little more “normal.”  They’d come in so-so, but after getting a drink or an appetizer they were great.  If you messed up their order, they’d kindly inform you and ask for it to be fixed.  After fixing it, they’d continue with their meal like nothing ever happened.
But then, on the far end of the other side of the spectrum were the mean people.  You know who you are…!  These are the people who walk in mad and have already decided to be mad throughout their entire meal before they have even been seated or met their server.  
You could spot these people as you spied on your table from across the room.  They’d either have face intensely dug into their menu, or they’d already have their minds made up and their menus stacked in a pile as if they’d been waiting there for 30 minutes already, even though you just saw the host seat them.
These were the people I saw as my personal projects.  I was going to make them smile if it took every last ounce of my soul.  
So, I’d approach their table and say, “Hi, I’m Josh and I’ll be taking care of you this evening,” as I wrote my name upside-down and backwards using the crayons on the table.  Usually the whole happy-greeting-thing didn’t go over so well with these people, so I’d keep it short and sweet.  I would quickly take their drink orders and then the challenge would begin.  
But here’s the deal.  This is what I learned.  I could try as hard I wanted, and I could provide them spotless service, but it wouldn’t make them smile.  Again, these people were determined to not crack!
They were constantly looking for me to mess something up.  But ironically, when a mistake was made, whether it was my fault or not, a window of opportunity was opened to show them some unexpected hospitality, and more often than not, that would finally make them smile.
Now, I wouldn’t say I would mess things up on purpose so I that I could apologize and make things better, but after I noticed this pattern, I certainly wouldn’t shy away from pointing something out, sometimes even before the guest noticed that anything was wrong.
It was in that restaurant that I learned the power of addressing conflict on the spot, rather than ignoring it and letting it simmer until it blew up.  When I would take responsibility and apologize for something, and not pass the blame to the cooks or to anyone else in the restaurant, the guests would usually respect that and I would have the opportunity to not just make things right, but to make them even better than they would have been without the mistake in the first place.
Why are we so afraid of conflict?  Why do we ignore it, letting it burrow and grow?  Think about a relationship in your life that has been broken by anger and a lack of forgiveness, whether it’s with a spouse, friend, or coworker.  The longer you run away from the conflict, the worse it will get.  Make that broken relationship your personal project, your “mean restaurant guest,” if you will, and pray for the opportunity and the courage to make things right.
Matthew 5:23-24
“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.