Characteristic #3 – Attentiveness and Perception
To possess and demonstrate the attitude of hospitality, we must develop the ability to be attentive and perceptive. We must see who is around us and then discover how to be more loving and accepting of the stranger within ourselves and the stranger who we rub shoulders with on the path. It is choosing to be present enough in our daily meanderings that we can help the person who feels invisible to feel visible. Parker Palmer writes this, “An inhospitable space is one where people feel invisible – or visible but on trial. A hospitable space is alive with trust and good will, rooted in a sense of our common humanity.” In order for us to possess hospitality in this way, attentiveness and perception are a couple of things we should consider as we strive to become people of welcome.
What does it mean to be attentive to the people around us? An attentive person is heedful of other people’s comfort levels as they walk through life. They have a practice of taking inventory of what and who is in their path. It is not just noticing that the lady walking by is wearing a blue shirt and khakis, but whether or not she is walking with purpose or if she has her head down and shoulders dropped as if she had just lost a championship game. It is noticing her hair and her demeanor. Is she smiling? Does she look like she slept well last night? Is she looking for a friend or a smiling face, or does she look like she is hiding even though she is out on the street?
We can be attentive when we are willing to put our own distractions of everyday life aside in order to have the time and ability to see how others are coping with life. It comes from choosing to be present where we are. The first step in compassion is seeing a need. The attentive person makes it their goal to try to see the needs of each person they encounter on a daily basis. They look deeper than appearances in order to understand the attitudes of another person through his or her words or silence, expressions and posture. This takes time, energy and practice!
Keep in mind this is not a command to go out and meet everyone’s needs right this minute, but in order to be a hospitable people, we must move toward this way of engaging our world by taking practical steps in that direction. My suggestion, and my practice as well, is this: think of one person you encounter on a daily basis and ask the Holy Spirit to let you see that person through God’s hopes and dreams for their lives. In doing this, we will not get bogged down in figuring out how we can meet the needs we see or get frustrated in our inability to solve every problem. Just take a moment to pray and ask God to help them through whatever you have seen them dealing with. Then listen to what the Holy Spirit says to you.
As a word of caution: if we practice attentiveness without the Holy Spirit directing our perception, we run the risk of corrupting our souls. If we just notice the needs of people, we can become judgmental, impatient, and bitter people. Hospitality requires that we practice being attentive AND perceptive. Attentiveness is the practice of noticing the details around us, but godly perception involves taking what we notice and handling it the way Christ would. When we perceive others in this way, we are compelled to do what is best for the other person. We honor them, value them and love them.
Perception is a form of listening—that is, disciplining our hearts to see and hear what God wants for His creation. This is the practice of listening not just with our ears and eyes, but also with our hearts through the Holy Spirit. When we are willing to take the time to learn how to perceive what is going on around us through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we then begin to see what God sees in people. As God opens our eyes, He equips our hands to reach out and meet the needs in ways only He could do.
Why must we accompany our attentiveness with Holy Spirit perception? It is the difference between judgment and grace. Between peace and hostility. It’s what draws the line between prejudice and acceptance. Relying on the Holy Spirit means that our hearts must be humble. Pride tends to rear its head when we start looking, really looking at other people. It would be easy for us to start evaluating others, pinpointing their flaws, and judging their actions. On top of that, pride calls us to cover over the faults we might recognize in ourselves when we reach out to another. We want to hide our fears and insecurities, so we begin to compare ourselves to the people we see. These attitudes drive us to separate ourselves from those around us and cause us to organize our lives so that we stay safe, protected, and feeling better about ourselves. What happens then instead of welcoming the stranger we are being attentive to, we push him away and guard ourselves from the welcome we need as well.
So where does the humility come from? There exists a powerful balm in remembering how sinful we are and recognizing how fully Christ has forgiven us. He has seen our need, understood our separation and welcomed us to His family. So whatever in me remains unsightly or insecure or fearful, I know there is hope because I have been seen and noticed and loved by the King. Often the pattern is that when we are attentive to others and perceptive of their hearts, our hearts are changed as well. As we practice hospitality, there is a dual transformation occurring—the stranger’s needs are being met and our lives are being formed into the image of Christ.
It is not surprising then why we do not practice hospitality more readily. Not only do we encounter the cost involved in helping another but we are met with the depth of our own need. The challenge often seems too much for us, too overwhelming, too costly. It is at this place that we are invited to take the hand of the Holy Spirit as he introduces us to the beauty of both the stranger we meet and the stranger within us. When we ask God to give us His eyes for the people around us, we begin to get a glimpse of God’s deepest longing for us as well. Seeing God’s hopes for our own lives is God’s way of pruning and refining our own souls as we learn to love the stranger among us. Taking steps into the life of hospitality allows us to see more clearly all God has done for us and how powerful His story really is in our lives. Glimpses of this truth can change the deepest hostilities, fears, and judgments we carry of the stranger. Hospitality then becomes not something we must do but rather an outpouring of thankfulness for the welcome we have already received from the Lord.
So if this is how we want to live and this is who we want to become, how do we begin? Well, as I said before, this is a practice that we are not naturally good at so we must practice. We must not get overwhelmed by the enormous task of being this type of person to everyone right away, but we must begin somewhere. So, my challenge to us is to begin praying and asking the Holy Spirit to guide us to a person who is in our daily life that we might begin practicing being attentive to, so we can begin to see what is going on in their life. Take time to talk to that person each time you see them whether it is convenient or not. Make an effort to do more listening than talking. Notice their actions, take into account what they say and how they say it. Continue this consistent interaction for a couple of week, taking note of any patterns that surface. If it helps, write down what you observe after you have seen the person. Remember to allow those observations to become a place where you pray for them and not judge them. Pray and ask God to allow you to use the things you observe as a window into their physical, emotional, or spiritual needs. Remember, those needs could be as simple as paying for their lunch tomorrow, or it might be a deeper issue of a cry for peace, acceptance, or of being understood. Then as we pray and allow the Holy Spirit to show us the needs God sees in this person’s life, we must be ready and available to meet the needs we see as the Spirit directs.
God will give us wisdom if we ask and He will walk with us in this new spiritual practice. Living a life of hospitality will be the hardest thing we ever take time to learn and do, but it will transport us to a brand new spiritual understanding of who God is and how deep His love is for each of us.
If you are a follower of Christ and you want to make a difference in those around you… I beg you to start here with learning to see others more important than yourself. No matter how you feel tomorrow morning, this is your call. Be imitators of Christ, who for the sake of the cross became a man and gave up all privilege and honor to walk among us for the specific plan to provide a way for us to be welcomed into his holy presence and so we can be invited into the presence of our God and so we can be a part of His eternal family. Go and be imitators of Christ!