Book Review – Unexpected Gifts: Discovering the Way of Community by Christopher L. Heuertz

by Mark Votava


In a world that has lost a sense of community in everyday life together, Christopher L. Heuertz’s book Unexpected Gifts brings us back to a place of discovering this beautiful way of connecting with one another.  He shares 11 challenges that can also turn into gifts as we persevere to live into a sense of community: failure, doubt, insulation, isolation, transition, the unknown self, betrayal, incompatibility, ingratitude, grief and restlessness.

I loved how the book reminds us of our need to recognize that grace weaves our lives together in unexpected way as we commit to relationship with one another.  As it is a struggle to be human at times, Christopher brings to our attention how necessary community is in the twenty-first century.  Without community, our journey in this life will become even more difficult as we are not meant to live in isolation, fear and resentment.

I particularly was struck by the theme of finding our common life together through the similarities we hold rather than our differences.  This means a lot to me because as I am living in community I am seeing how important compassion is to binding lives together around the unifying principle of connection, solidarity and empathy.  People are not so different from me than what I had originally thought.  Our commonalities and diversity collide making something beautiful through relational connection in everyday life.

The book addresses that life is to be lived through a paradox where we find unexpected gifts as we do not give up on the practice of sharing life together with others.  Community reveals to us how much we struggle to find mature ways to love others.  Unexpected Gifts will help us to love in a world that doesn’t give a way of love much of a chance to flourish and shape us.

I love this book because it brings up honest questions about doubt.  Can faith and doubt co-exist?  Christopher says yes and encourages us to explore safe places in community where our questions can be respected and held lightly as this is a necessary part of our growth.  Romantic ideals of community are put forth as having little value as Christopher is very honest about how difficult community is to create with one another.

Inclusiveness, friendship and creative absence are all important to the contents of the book.  Christopher has found that as we pursue community we also need times away that are creative, nurturing and bring us a new perspective from our insularity.  There is great wisdom to be found here as taking time to care for ourselves is essential through solitude that leads us back into deeper relational connection in community.  Everyday rhythms and rest go hand in hand.

This book is a great one for anyone looking to discern the challenges and gifts that a life of community can bring.  It takes courage, humility and an openness to discover our true self to live into this.  Christopher L. Heuertz is one of the best guides to help us on this journey to live into our humanity deeply.  Highly recommended reading!

  • Grace in community

“Grace in community brings us closer together, not in a way that creates unhealthy fusion but in one that validates the human struggle we all face.”

  • Overidentify people by their differences in relation to us

“Sure, it’s possible, and more likely probable in most cases, that our false centers are simply an identification with the groups to which we belong.  It’s usually unintentionally fortified and almost always perpetuated without negative or harmful motivations.  But when we don’t recognize the false center we’ve created in ourselves, we perpetuate exclusive environments that overidentify people by their differences in relation to us.”

  • Immature expressions of love

“It’s important to note that in authentic relationships and dynamic communities, most betrayals are simply immature expressions of love.”

  • Community is a place where we are free to ask tough questions

“Community is an incubator in which faith and doubt can coexist.  In tension and in safety, community is a place where we are free to ask tough questions.  And when we don’t have good answers or the doubts start to take us to dark places, community is there to remind us of God’s faithfulness.”

  • Community isn’t the romantic ideal so many believe it to be

“…community isn’t the romantic ideal so many believe it to be.  It’s difficult.”

  • Ambiguous and messy attempts to find our way back to one another

“…in community there really are no resolutions, only ambiguous and messy attempts to find our way back to one another.  Attempts that, in our humanity, often create new tensions.”

  • Awkward and inappropriate efforts of tokenism

“Until we confess the poverty of our friendships, many of our attempts to foster inclusion run the risk of becoming awkward and inappropriate efforts of tokenism.  It doesn’t feel good to be the ‘token’ anything in any community.  It diminishes everyone’s humanity to be misled by communities that appear to be inclusive but are actually using minority members for cosmetic purposes.”

  • The incubator of our imaginations

“Let our failures further unite us, illuminating the hidden beauty within us.  May our doubts lead to greater faith.  Let us never become so isolated that we lose the fragrance of the blossoms under our very noses.  May isolation expose our divisions and lead us to healing and wholeness.  Let our transitions be grace-filled, accepting and honest.  May we come to truly know ourselves, receiving the beauty and terror of our humanity.  Let our love not lead to betrayal.  May we find better ways to negotiate chemistry and compatibility without losing one another or ourselves along the way.  Let our gratitude be sustained, leading us away from unspoken resentments.  May we never forget to celebrate, even as we grieve.  May we live faithfully in the undramatic – the incubator of our imaginations – bearing witness to hope…  And in discovering the unexpected gifts of shared space, live the way of community.”

  • Keep showing up even when it’s unappreciated or unnoticed

“Just think of the dazzling, deep discoveries we’d find if only we had the fortitude in our friendships, communities, or vocations to keep showing up, even when it’s unappreciated or unnoticed.”

  • Bound together, committed to a common life

“Though we exist as individuals, each imbued with our own unique identities and expressions of faith, the loom reminds us that we’re bound together, committed to a common life.  Our grief over our broken unity mingles with joy over our collective bond…”

  • When our lives are woven together

“In community we join together lives that are bursting with promise and potential but that are also marked by grief and sorrow.  We exist as individual strands of a larger narrative.  When our lives are woven together with others’, something new emerges – rich in texture, vibrant, and transcendent.”

  • Tensions we struggle to navigate

“Yet it’s these painful community experiences, these tensions we struggle to navigate, that hold surprising gifts…”

  • Doubt and questions are a natural part of faith

“We all know that the doubts will come – they should come, if we’re honest – but they don’t have to overcome us.  Together we remind one another of God’s presence, faithfulness, and nearness.  We do this with courage and humility.  We accept that doubt and questions are a natural part of faith; that they belong in our lives and our communities.”

  • Bound by a commitment to one another

“…community is not just a collective of people united around a cause.  Rather, it’s a group of people bound by a commitment to one another – and community becomes the loom that weaves them together.  A loom that takes all our colors and pieces, fabrics and faults, and interweaves us to create something greater than ourselves…”

  • Accepting the flawed parts of ourselves when we’re alone

“In our own freedom, we still go about making mistakes, disappointing ourselves and others, living with guilt, shame, regret, or fear that the consequences of our worst moments will catch up to us.  Many of us have a hard time accepting the flawed parts of ourselves when we’re alone – a struggle that’s even more difficult when we’re in community.”

  • Nurturing communities that make space for doubt

“What does it look like to nurture communities that make space for doubt, for the honest questions we’re afraid to ask?  The questions we’re not supposed to ask?  How does community sustain us when we feel we can’t go on alone?”

  • Making space for absence

“One of the more difficult disciplines in forming community is making space for absence.  This can be especially tough in the early stages of community formation because people hate to miss out on the life and rhythms of their community.  But if the development of a community isn’t marked by periods of withdrawal, retreat, or other forms of creative absence, there can be a tendency for the community to close in on itself.”

  • Our communities won’t always be able to offer us everything we need

“Our communities won’t always be able to offer us everything we need, nor will we be able to give back all that they need from us.  This is tricky because sometimes we can’t see it when we’re submerged in community life.  The insulation of shared rhythms and life sometimes convolutes our perception.  That’s often when we need to step back, to refocus.”

  • Creative absence is an unexpected gift

“Creative absence is one of those unexpected gifts that seems to benefit everyone involved…”

  • Cutting off needed parts of the body of community

“We’re fractured and divided…  The sad truth is that we are the ones cutting off needed parts of the body of community, leaving us unable to participate in many of the activities community was designed for.”

In what ways have you discovered unexpected gifts in community with others?