Unexpected Gifts

Discovering the Way of Community

Foreword by Richard Rohr

About The Book

In this heartfelt and thoughtful book, Christopher Heuertz writes of the dangers of isolation, the challenges we face when we join together and the struggles and joys that emerge from genuine community bonding.


“Ironically, as much as we yearn for deep friendships and meaningful communities, many of us seem to be unable to find our way into them. Even if we know we’re made for community, finding one and staying there seems almost impossible. Though we hate to admit it, if we stay long enough in any relationship or set of friendships, we will experience failure, doubt, burnout, loneliness, transitions, a loss of self, betrayal, frustration, a sense of entitlement, grief, and weariness. Yet it’s these painful community experiences, these tensions we struggle to navigate, that hold surprising gifts.” —FROM THE PREFACE

IN A STRIKINGLY confessional tone and vividly illustrated through story, Unexpected Gifts names eleven inevitable challenges that all friendships, relationships, and communities experience if they stay together long enough. Rather than allowing these challenges to become excuses to leave, Chris Heuertz suggests that things like betrayal, transitions, failure, loss of identity, entitlement, and doubt may actually be invitations to stay. And if we stay, these challenges can become unexpected gifts.

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Betrayal, failure, loss of identity, doubt. If your relationships have suffered from any of these pitfalls, this book will show you that staying together can create something more—even something beautiful.

IN THIS HEARTFELT and thoughtful book, Christopher Heuertz writes of the dangers of isolation, the challenges we face when we join together, and the struggles and joys that emerge from genuine community bonding.

Whether readers are forming a new community, searching for deeper community, or participating in a longtime community, they will find inspiration, caution, guidance, and encouragement as they discover the beauty of pressing in to the ambiguities of growing relationships in this tender and honest testimony about how we are woven together by grace.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Unexpected Gifts includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


Introduction

From sitcoms to reality TV, the portrayal of our collective longing for connection and community is pervasive. The theme song of Cheers echoes in our ears: “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name.” And yet, if everyone wants community, why is loneliness so common, even (sometimes especially) within communities of faith? In his book, Unexpected Gifts, Chris Heuertz describes the counter-consumerism practices and commitments that are necessary for communities of faith to grow and be sustained.  

Topics & Questions for Discussion 

1. What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the word “community”? After reading this book, would you say you are living in community or are you longing for community? Describe the contrast the author draws in the introduction between “connecting” together at The House of Loom and the necessary commitment of life together as a community.
 
2. The author describes eleven challenges that often show up in the midst of communities. Which one(s) did you identify with the most? Are there any you would add to the list?
 
3. How do you respond to failure—in your own life and in the lives of others? What qualities in a person or community does the author describe in chapter 1 that create the “safe space where a culture of confession is celebrated”? What are some specific ways you can cultivate these qualities in your life?
 
4. How are doubts about faith and God handled in your faith tradition? On page 24, the author quotes his priest’s words: “the opposite of faith isn’t doubt but certainty.” Do you agree? Have you experienced a season of doubt in your life of faith? How did you respond to your doubts? Describe ways that worshipping together can be a sustaining practice in response to doubt within a community.
 
5. The author quotes Dietrich Bonhoeffer at the beginning of chapter 3: “Let [those] who cannot be alone beware of community . . . Let [those] who [are] not in community beware of being alone.” With which group do you most identify (i.e., cannot be alone or not in community)? What are some gifts of solitude? Have you experienced solitude and/or sabbatical as an enriching gift to your life in community? Describe.
 
6. On page 51, the author proposes reviewing the last ten calls or texts made on your cell phone to highlight the diversity of your relationships. What did you learn about your relationships as a result of this exercise? What are some common attitudes and practices you have observed that create a spirit of openness and inclusion within a community?
 
7. On pages 84 to 87, the author describes phases that often follow a transition within a community. Can you relate these phases to a time when you decided to leave a group, church, community, etc.? How did you respond to these phases (even though you may not have named them at the time)? Throughout chapter 5, the author mentions several factors that, when present, contribute to transitions that are honoring and affirming for everyone involved. Make a list of these factors and discuss ways that they can be encouraged and nurtured.
 
8. Are there any transitions you have been part of that ended with hurt and unresolved conflict? In chapter 5, the author describes the process of communication he initiated in an effort to restore and reconcile hurtful transitions from Word Made Flesh. Are there any principles from this story that you sense God leading you to apply in unresolved conflicts in your life?
 
9. On page 97, the author lists three lies that lead to flawed identity: “I am what I have,” “I am what I do,” and “I am what other people think about me.” Which of these is the greatest temptation for you? What are the most common names you call yourself (other than your given name)? When you hear the name “Beloved,” what is your response?
 
10. In chapter 6, the author highlights various scriptures that point to the restoration of humanity in Christ. How do you feel about your human needs, desires, and limitations? How do the author’s reflections about embracing your humanity in chapter 6 impact you? St. Irenaeus is quoted as saying, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” In light of this chapter’s reflections, what might this phrase mean?
 
11. What is your response to the author’s beginning assumption in chapter 7: “However it happens, all of us betray our communities and friendships and all of us are betrayed by them”? Have you experienced betrayal in a relationship? How did you respond? Have you experienced someone’s “fidelity to love in the midst of betrayal”?
 
12. How did the story of the author’s friendship with Tuna (page 120) impact you? Do you relate to the author’s reflection that “most of our friendships can be incredibly self-serving or self-affirming”? Do you have friends in your life who have loved you, regardless of your accomplishments or failures? What is required to be that kind of friend?
 
13. How have communities you have been part of modeled relationships between men and women? What does the author propose as an alternative to avoidance in approaching the inevitability of attraction and chemistry within a community? What is your response to the author’s recommendations?
 
14. On page 151, the author says: “A good host needs a good guest.” What are qualities of a good host, based on your experiences? What are qualities of a good guest?
 
15. When you receive a gift (or compliment), how do you respond? What is the difference between acknowledging a gift and gratitude?
 
16. In chapter 10, the author relays the graphic story of the reign of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. How did reading this story impact you? What is your response to injustice and suffering in the world?
 
17. The author describes the decision he and his wife made to remain childless, choosing to live their lives on behalf of the “plundered childhood of many of our little friends, younger brothers and sisters.” Are there choices you have made in your life to say “no” to something good so that you can say “yes” to something God is inviting you to give yourself to wholeheartedly? What spiritual practices are necessary to cultivate a heart that is available to listen and discern and then follow God’s leading?
 
18. How are action and contemplative prayer related, according to the author’s reflections at the end of Chapter 10? On page 173, the author defines centering prayer as “active consent to the divine presence of God.” How is this similar to/different from the prayer you have practiced?
 
19. Has there been a time in your life when you chose to stay in a relationship or community when things got boring or didn’t feel satisfying? What was the impact of staying—on you and the relationship/community? In what ways do our cultural norms and practices encourage or discourage commitment and “staying”?

Enhance Your Book Club

  1. After answering question #9 above, read The Life of the Beloved by Henri Nouwen. At your next book club, discuss the impact that embracing your belovedness (your true identity) has on the way you relate to others.   
 
2. Commit to spend 20 minutes per day for one month practicing the contemplative prayer practice of lectio divina or centering prayer. Ask God for the grace to know and experience His love for you and to receive the name He calls you. Be still, listen, receive. Discuss your experiences at your next book club.   
 
3. Pick one of the stories about injustice and suffering from Unexpected Gifts that particularly moved you. Spend some time asking God how you can be involved in fighting injustice and responding to suffering. Be aware of connections and opportunities that arise in response to your openness and availability. Discuss your experiences at your next book club.   
 
4. Start a gratitude journal. Take 10 minutes at the end of each day to reflect on the day and enjoy and give thanks for the gifts you received through the day, both from God and from others. Or, write a letter to someone who has been a gift to your life, thanking them for their friendship and care. Discuss your experiences at your next book club.

About The Author

Photograph by Hope Jewell + Calvin Smothers @AnchorPhotoCo

Christopher L. Heuertz is an activist, author, visionary and public speaker, who has traveled with his wife, Phileena, through nearly seventy countries working with the most vulnerable of the world’s poor. Chris has led the Word Made Flesh community as the International Executive Director since 1996. He and Phileena reside in Omaha, Nebraska.

Raves and Reviews

"Unexpected Gifts is a rich and important book about the benefits and challenges of community that we desperately need. Chris Heuertz has lived out the message of these pages with great authenticity. His honesty draws you in, provokes and heals, and shows you why community is always worth the struggle."

– Jud Wilhite, author of Torn, Sr. Pastor of Central Christian Church, Las Vegas

“Engaging and real, fascinating and gritty, Heuertz invites you to journey with him as he wrestles aloud with the challenges and surprises of life lived together. With insights collected from his experiences in slums, favelas, and neighborhoods around the world, he reveals the ugly myths that unhinge relationships. With a courageous honesty he speaks the unspoken questions that we all harbor, but are too scared to say. Heuertz gives hope, prophetic challenges, and an unexpected gift in this book.”

– Nikki Toyama-Szeto, Urbana Program Director, Co-editor of More than Serving Tea

Unexpected Gifts is a prophetic book about the wisdom of community. For nearly two decades Christopher Heuertz has led the community Word Made Flesh, whose goal is to serve and be with the most miserable and oppressed people of our world, hidden in war-torn lands, slums, and red light districts of big cities. The community founded in the evangelical church has become ecumenical; members from different churches united in their desire to serve the poorest of the poor, are inspired by Jesus. I would hope that many from my own Roman Catholic church may discover this new community clearly blessed by Jesus and the Holy Spirit.”

– Jean Vanier, author, founder of the Communities of l'Arche

“There are few people who can reframe the way we think or act and bring about a paradigm shift . . . Chris and Phileena are gifted with this. Their experiences are filtered through grace and the unconditional love of God, which Chris brilliantly articulates in this book. Fundamentally, it’s a book about faithfulness to relationships. Anyone interested in leading an authentic Christian life will find wisdom reading it. Although Christian community-living is difficult, Chris challenges the common response of rejection within those communities. He suggests that the challenges can be converted to unexpected gifts. Chris is a brilliant and creative thinker of our time and uses parallel stories to contrast and expose the truth that leaves an indelible impression on your mind."

– Pranitha Timothy, Director of Aftercare, International Justice Mission

“By sharing stories of tragedy and triumph, Chris illustrates an intricate picture of how communities come together in the beauty and the broken. His passion, commitment, and service toward others is evident through his vulnerable and transparent experiences in community. I feel immensely privileged to learn from these intimate stories of honest pains and true joys that stem from genuine relationships. You’ll find yourself both challenged and encouraged by this gift that Chris shares with us.”

– Nikole Lim, Founder & Executive Director of Freely in Hope

“Chris Heuertz’s Unexpected Gifts is a clarion call to missional community as ancient as Jesus’ first challenge for the disciples to ‘follow me’ . . . together. Heuertz’s eyes have seen the glory, and his flesh has borne the scars of life together. As a result, his provocative and inspiring roadmap for community life offers insightful instruction for the next generation of saints while applying a healing salve for those who may have tried and failed before. Heuertz’s book is an unexpected gift, indeed.”

– Lisa Sharon Harper, Director of Mobilizing at Sojourners, Co-Author of Left, Right and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics, and Author of Evangelical Does Not Equal Republican . . . or

"Ever wondered what it actually means to live in community? Chris Heuertz asks tough questions and shares vivid stories that will both haunt you as well as lift your spirit. He takes you on a journey through the slums of Calcutta to the war-torn streets of Sierra Leone to dimly lit clubs in Omaha, Nebraska posing questions and looking for answers. It's a trip worth taking."

– Scott Harrison, Founder and CEO of charity: water

"In a world of stale religiosity, Chris Heuertz is a breath of fresh air. He's unafraid to ask risky questions and even propose provocative answers, but he does so with humility and grace. Unexpected Gifts challenges readers to consider that the supposed burdens of life-on-life community may be blessings in disguise. Read it and prepare to be changed."

– Jonathan Merritt, author of A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars

"In his book, Unexpected Gifts, Chris Heuertz confesses that this was not an easy book to write. Truth be told, this is not an easy book to read. If you're looking for an easy, simple, solution-based seven steps and gung-ho parade to being a perfect community, look elsewhere. This book is raw, difficult, uncomfortable, and emotional, but here's the deal: it speaks truth—with humility and honesty—and points us to the One who created us for community, friendship, and relationship. Community is the thing that we long for the most, and in my opinion, the thing that scares us the most. I don't know how to recommend this book but to simply invite you to journey with it."

– Eugene Cho, lead pastor of Quest Church, founder of One Day's Wages

Unexpected Gifts: Discovering the Way of Community brings a freshness to a topic in danger of growing stale: community. It is honest. It’s not often that a leader is so forthright, confessional even, about personal struggles, mistakes, and regrets. It is refreshing. Throwing open the doors and windows and letting in some air so we can all breathe a little easier and deeper. This transparency contrasts deeply with the more common posturing to prove something….competence or holiness or effectiveness or whatever the case might be. It is gritty. Tackling very real but seldom addressed areas like failure, doubt, grief, disappointment, sexual energy, and even boredom. It’s nuanced throughout with Chris’ international experiences (like traveling the ancient Camino pilgrimage), to biblical exploration (like considering the reasonable pragmatism of Judas), to personal anguish (like the decision not to have children) that keep it real, insightful, and compelling. I highly recommend this read if you have any interest in community, leadership, or living an authentic life of faith."

– Stuart Erny, Director of Campus Ministries, Anderson University

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